U.Va. Engineering School Advances Diversity in Engineering and Science Through Inaugural LEAD Program

July 21, 2009 — A program that for 25 years has worked to attract a greater diversity of students to business careers came to the University of Virginia's Engineering School this summer to do the same for engineering and science.

The School of Engineering and Applied Science held its first Leadership, Education and Development – or LEAD – Summer Engineering Institute, hosted by the Center for Diversity in Engineering.

LEAD was established in 1980 by executives at McNeil Pharmaceutical to provide a positive career-related experience to students of color. Traditionally, LEAD consisted only of a Business Institute that was held at several of America's best graduate business schools, including U.Va.'s Darden School of Business.

Last year, LEAD created a Summer Engineering Institute, an interactive three-week program involving 570 students at seven top-tier engineering schools. This year, the U.Va. Engineering School joined the program.

Thirty rising high school juniors and seniors from across the nation gathered in Charlottesville for the three-week residency camp in June. The curriculum was designed to familiarize students with various engineering disciplines through classroom study, group projects, guest speakers and hands-on experiments.

In one workshop, students learned how to successfully develop and deliver PowerPoint presentations from Barry Hinton, a cell biology professor in the U.Va. School of Medicine. Hinton usually teaches his workshop through the University's Teaching Research Center to medical school professionals who have a good deal of presentation experience.

"I showed the students how to give a presentation in a very different way than people would normally give a PowerPoint presentation," Hinton said. "I emphasized the benefits of using images instead of text and other methods that can inject some life, creativity and innovation into their presentations."

Students were given the opportunity to apply these new strategies in research symposium presentations given on the last day of the program. In small groups, the students presented their research on a variety of engineering topics, including producing ethanol from cellulose, using aluminum sulfate for water purification, and applying computer modeling and simulation technology to human biological systems.

"I was very impressed with the research presentations the students gave," Hinton said. "They really seemed to absorb the information from the workshop and apply it in a very fantastic and inspiring way."

The program also included a "fireside chat" with Jocelyn E. Scott, chief engineer and vice president of DuPont Engineering, Facilities and Real Estate, who talked to the students about her personal journey into engineering. Scott's background includes chemical engineering degrees from Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as a 25-year career at DuPont.

Scott centered the discussion around the kinds of actions and decisions the students should focus on at this point in their lives.

"It will be very important for them going forward to have a high degree of self-awareness and the self-discipline required to take full control of their decisions," Scott said. "I tried to help them discover and establish their own kind of philosophy that will help guide them through life."

Many industry experts and political leaders agree that developing technical knowledge and abilities of today's youth is critical to the nation's future health, security and economy.

"Programs like LEAD help those students who feel they have an interest in engineering follow through with those feelings," Scott said. "These programs encourage them to overcome the academic challenges and expose them to the opportunities associated with an engineering career early on.

"Additionally, allowing these students to be in an environment where they are surrounded by other like-minded peers, who are all thinking about engineering and perform well academically, provides encouragement."

The exciting activities, the exposure to innovative engineering and the supportive environment contributed to the positive encouragement that the students take with them when they finish the three-week program.

"I learned a lot about what it means to be an engineer and met a lot of very interesting people," said Alex Ortiz, a rising high school senior from Houston. "The whole experience made me fall in love with the program and allowed me to decide that I want to be a biomedical engineer."

-- by Kathryn Welsh