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A Boost for Engineering Education

$1 million federal grant will be used to encourage low-income students to pursue graduate study

Several years ago, when Karen Panetta tried to sell undergraduate engineering students on the advantages of staying to get a master's degree, she heard a discouraging response from some of them.

"The students were telling us they couldn't afford to stay another two years, unless they had family who could support them," said Panetta, associate dean for graduate education at Tufts School of Engineering. It seemed like a missed opportunity, given that an advanced degree opens up more employment opportunities at generally higher salaries.

"High-tech companies, particularly those that are specialized, want someone who can hit the ground running," Panetta said. "If they can get a graduate student who already has skills and research experience, that is a win."

One solution was the School of Engineering's combined Bachelor of Science/Master of Science (B.S./M.S.) degree program, which allows Tufts students to earn the two degrees in five years, instead of six—saving a year of tuition. Growing awareness of the combined-degree program has resulted in a significant uptick in enrollment over the past three years, from a handful to the current 46, Panetta said.

Now the school has introduced a new program to entice more low-income students to consider graduate study. FAST-TRAC will provide financial, academic, and social support to economically disadvantaged students who embark on the five-year track.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Tufts can fund FAST-TRAC through at least 2020. In addition to scholarships, FAST Engineering undergraduates who started their junior year last fall are the first to be eligible for a new scholarship program that will help them pursue graduate education.

Here, Robert White, associate professor of mechanical engineering, works with Kevin Ligonde and Daniela Torres, both E16, who are now Ph.D. students in mechanical engineering at Tufts. TRAC students will have access to research mentors, skill-building workshops, and other support as they make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study.

"This is a huge opportunity for the School of Engineering to develop a model for encouraging more low-income students to consider continuing their education," said Darryl Williams, the school's associate dean of undergraduate education. "It's a way for us to rethink some of the infrastructure we have for supporting students in our graduate programs."

Engineering undergraduates who started their junior year last fall are the first to be eligible for FAST-TRAC. Candidates applied in November, and will find out whether they have been accepted in April, said Panetta, who is the principal investigator on the NSF grant.

The FAST-TRAC students will begin their graduate program this summer, either starting a research project or doing an industry internship. The school expects to enroll 10 to 12 FAST-TRAC students the first year, although the NSF funding could eventually support as many as 20 scholarships a year, she said. The program will help the School of Engineering strengthen its strategies for attracting and retaining underrepresented and economically disadvantaged graduate students, Williams said.

For employers, FAST-TRAC fills a need as well, and the School of Engineering is hoping to attract industry support. Mitre Corp., headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts, has already signed on as a sponsor, providing both funding and internships, Panetta said.

"This engagement has provided us with an opportunity to mentor students and find avenues to help them pursue their graduate studies through sponsorship of their master's degrees as part of the five-year B.S./M.S. program and internships," said Dave Scher, a director at Mitre. "We are excited about expanding our relationship with Tufts to identify ways to work more collaboratively on joint research, while continuing to recruit strong Tufts engineers to Mitre."

Williams noted that "the landscape for entry-level engineering jobs is changing significantly. The more competitive applicants are those who have masterís degrees."