Girl Power Engineers Success

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
 By SUSAN McMAHON


LOWELL- Lara Thompson's interest was piqued by a flight-school course.

Kari Stevens became hooked during her math and science classes in school.

For Suzanne Collins, her chemistry and calculus professors both women inspired her to switch her major.

Thompson, Stevens and Collins recently graduated as the top three students in mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, an accomplishment that is significant in its own right. But combined with the fact that all three are women in a major that was 90 percent men, the results point to a larger trend.

Women may remain in the minority in engineering studies, but they are well-represented in the top rankings.

The highest-ranking junior in mechanical engineering is female. And while women only comprise about 15 percent of all engineering students at the school, they make up 27 percent of those on the dean's list.

ENGINEERING EXCELLENCE: Kari Stevens tests the strength of a material in a press at a lab in the Kitson Building at University of Massachusetts Lowell late last week. Stevens was among three women who graduated as the top three students in mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell last week. SUN/DAVID BROW

"They're still underrepresented," said John McKelliget, chairman of the university's mechanical engineering department. "But they do get to the top of the class."

For Collins, the moment at graduation when she, Thompson and Stevens stood up as summa cum laude graduates was particularly sweet.

"I just felt like we had a connection there," she said.

Originally a nursing major, Collins spent only one semester pursuing the health profession before switching to engineering. Two female professors in the sciences helped her to realize engineering was something she could do.

"They really inspired me," said the Berlin resident. "They made me realize it wasn't out of my reach."

The other two top-finishers had similar experiences, with Stevens crediting her math and science classes in various Department of Defense schools, attended while her father was in the military, with piquing her interest in the sciences.

Thompson, whose father is an engineering professor at UMass Lowell, had always had a keen mind for math and science. While taking an advanced aerospace class as a high school junior, she had the opportunity to experience flight classes at Daniel Webster College. After that, she was hooked on the idea of aeronautics.

Engineering professors agree that it is usually in the younger grades that girls, for one reason or another, get turned off to the idea of becoming engineers. In the case of Stevens, Thompson and Collins, a good educational experience turned their minds to the possibility of engineering as a career.

Stevens, who has worked on the Women in Science and Engineering program, an on-campus program that gives girls hands-on experiences in the sciences, hopes more young women take an interest in the field.

"It's so important to have role models, to have women doing well in science and engineering," she said.

Once the three women dedicated their college careers to engineering, it took hard work to be at the top of the class. For all three, the goal was to do their best. The accolades of graduation became a side benefit.

"I just knew that if I didn't work hard, I wouldn't be able to float by," Thompson said. "I wanted to try my best."

"I went along throughout my college career just doing my best, not really doing it for any recognition," Collins said. "I didn't expect this."

McKelliget praised all three women for being outstanding students. "It makes teaching enjoyable to have students like that," he said.

And now the three women who dominated the mechanical engineering department are continuing to be role models in their own right.

Collins and Stevens are both continuing their graduate work at UMass Lowell. Thompson will be attending Stanford University on a fellowship.

And all three hope they won't be the last to see a female triumvirate at UMass Lowell.

"I hope it isn't always so unusual," Stevens said.