UMass Amherst Program Encourages Engineering Majors to Pursue Advanced Degrees

AMHERST, Mass. - A program at the University of Massachusetts is aimed at encouraging college students from diverse backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees in engineering. Eight students are participating this year in the Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates. The program, in its third year at UMass, is funded by the National Science Foundation, and is coordinated by professors Sharon Long and James Male, both of the civil and environmental engineering department.

"A graduate degree in engineering brings you the ability to move into a leadership role, and to do some very creative research," said Long, a UMass alumna and an applied microbial ecologist. Earning a doctorate opens a lot of options, she says, including, but not limited to, becoming a professor: "In this competitive market,industry is looking for engineers with Ph.D.s, too," she says.

The program has some broader goals as well. "We''re trying to promote diversity within engineering. Students learn to work together with people from other backgrounds. Ultimately, we''re trying to make academia more diverse," said Long. Each undergraduate is teamed up with a graduate student and a faculty member. The eight students,who come from across the country to live on campus for 10 weeks, focus on an individual topic associated with an ongoing research project. Research projects being conducted this year include studies on water supply, analysis of groundwater contamination, and structural analysis of concrete designs.

"The program teaches students what research is about. They learn how to formulate a hypothesis, and how to develop experiments to test that hypothesis," Long said. "They go from being dependent researchers to being independent researchers." Students are chosen on the basis of their academic standing and an essay. Preference is given to civil and environmental engineers, and to women and underserved minorities.

"We want students who have an intellectual and creative capacity but maybe because of economic or societal issues, have less self-assurance," she said. "They see someone who could be a role model and say, ''Hey, maybe I could do that. Maybe I could be a researcher or an engineer.''" Role models were crucial in her own life, says Long, who is Asian American.

The results have been impressive. Six of the seven students from 1995 went on graduate school, and one joined the Peace Corps; of last year''s seven participants, six are enrolled in graduate school, and one has a job in private industry.