By Claudia Chiappa
Boston University Statehouse Program
HOLYOKE — Holyoke Community College has received a nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to start a new fast-tracked engineering program aimed to boost diversity in the field.
The $956,458 grant was awarded as part of the college’s Hispanic Serving Institutions program, to be distributed over the course of four years. HCC’s new program, the Western Massachusetts Engineering Pathways Program, will allow students to complete a one-year engineering certificate program that will conclude with a paid internship in the field.
“We’re hoping that through this pilot program we can look at ways to enhance the engineering curriculum at Holyoke Community College but also be an example to other community colleges in other areas,” said Melissa Paciulli, director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC and one of the co-principal investigators of the program.
HCC’s partners for the grant include Holyoke High School, Westfield High School, Western New England University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the 50K Coalition, the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services, and the Society for Women Engineers.
The U.S. Dept. of Education recognized Holyoke Community College as a Hispanic Serving Institution in 2016 when the college’s Hispanic student enrollment surpassed 25%. One of the goals of the program is to boost the presence of women and Latinx in the engineering field.
“As this idea was born out of helping to create diversity in STEM, and specifically this NSF project is focused on engineering, we are looking at all of the different barriers to success for our students’ journey,” Paciulli said.
According to 2017 data from the NSF, women account for 29% of science and engineering employment, and in particular for 16% of engineers. Research shows that the number of women receiving engineering degrees has increased over the past two decades, going from 18% to 21% at the bachelor’s level and from 18% to 25% at the master’s level.
Communities of color are also underrepresented in certain STEM fields, with Hispanics occupying 7% of science and engineering jobs according to 2017 NSF data. Despite trends showing an increase in these numbers, these groups are still underrepresented in many STEM fields. Programs such as the Western Massachusetts Engineering Pathways Program hope to change that.
“Engineering and technology professions are far behind,” said Roberta Rincon, associate director of research at the Society of Women Engineers. “The progress we are seeing is very, very slow. Some of the reasons that the researchers have pointed to is that the engineering climate and culture is a factor.”
To address multiple barriers underrepresented communities face in STEM, the HCC program will support students as they transition between institutions, from high school all the way to college. The Engineering Pathways coordinator will identify students interested in engineering careers from Holyoke and Westfield high schools, providing financial and academic support along their academic pathway.
“When you’re talking about trying to increase diversity in STEM, you have to look at all the different pipeline areas, because it’s a leaky pipe all the way across,” Paciulli said. “The pipeline can be from elementary school to middle school to high school to a community college or a four-year. There’s different issues at whatever level you’re in along your journey.”
Once the students have completed the program and the paid internship, they will be supported as they transfer into four-year institutions.
“Our engineering graduates typically go on to Western New England and UMass Amherst and other institutions with highly regarded engineering programs, so we are helping to build that base,” Adrienne Smith, HCC’s dean of STEM and principal investigator for the grant, said in a news release.
“What we really like about this project is the pathway from high school to two-year to four-year,” said Rincon, who will serve as a research advisor for the program. “In community college women in particular don’t know anybody who’s an engineer. These kinds of projects introduce women to other women who are pursuing engineering and who are entering the engineering profession. Access to internship opportunities and jobs while they’re in school is also very important, because it introduces them to actual hands-on work.
The program is expected to start in fall 2022 with a cohort of at least 20 students, said Paciulli.
“I am hoping that we will have a cohort of women in engineering that will be excited, skilled, and ready to go,” said Paciulli. “STEM identity is a big concern for a lot of students and we are hoping that this will strengthen their STEM identity.”
This story originally appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.