Morgan Parker, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, started her involvement in TISP during the 2013-2014 academic year. During her first year in TISP, she returned to her high school and reflected on her journey as a student. “As ambassadors, we all go back to our high schools to give presentations on engineering,” Morgan explained. “I come from a high school where many people don’t go to college. And when I went back, I almost teared up because it was the most rewarding feeling to share that I was in a successful place, but also that I could give back to my high school."
In 2011, Boston University’s College of Engineering launched TISP under the leadership of Dr. Gretchen Fougere, Associate Dean for Outreach & Diversity. As a K-12 outreach program, TISP selects BU’s most talented engineering majors and sends them to middle and high schools across the country as Inspiration Ambassadors. These ambassadors interact with K-12 students through engaging presentations and engineering design challenges that demonstrate the discipline’s direct connection to solving real-world problems.
Morgan’s experience illustrates the inspiring work of TISP, a program which the Argosy Foundation began supporting in 2012 with a $25,000 grant to support stipends for Inspiration Ambassadors. With the grant, Argosy became the first partner of BU Engineering’s COOL (COrporate Outreach Leaders Program). TISP used Argosy’s funds to hire an additional 10 undergraduates and train 10 experienced ambassadors to specialize as lead mentors for new undergraduate hires who choose to be robotics mentors in TISP. The grant also contributed to designing a process for training and recruiting those robotics mentors.
Inspiring the Next Generation
As of this year, TISP students have presented to over 8, 400 K-12 students across 19 states. Currently, the program boasts a total of 50 ambassadors—a dramatic rate of growth when considering that the program started with 17 ambassadors in 2011. TISP’s approach aims to introduce engineering as a potential career in fun, creative, and engaging ways. “Rather than talking at students or lecturing them, our main drive is to get students to interact with the topics and what we’re trying to tell them,” explained Maria Ferreira-Cesar, a 2014 graduate of BU’s College of Engineering and former Ambassador. “For example, I did a few workshops on clean energy where we had students work with small wind turbines. We had them think about how they were putting them together and things like cost of construction and measuring their success,” Maria noted.
To prepare for these design workshops and presentations, ambassadors receive training from Dr. Fougere. During the training, ambassadors learn to use research-based messaging from the National Academies of Science and Engineering in their presentations to K-12 students. “The National Academies have done some research about the best methods that really resonate with middle school and high school kids—the processes by which engineers solve problems in society and help people is really a fundamental message that comes through with all the activities we do,” Dr. Fougere explained. Moreover, throughout the semester, ambassadors prepare by meeting weekly to become familiar with the design challenges, prepare interactive materials, and practice their presentations as well as deliver these workshops in Boston. In addition to local visits to schools, TISP’s work extends to regular mentoring of local high school students.
“I come from a high school where many people don’t go to college. And when I went back, I almost teared up because it was the most rewarding feeling to share that I was in a successful place, but also that I could give back to my high school."
Mentoring and Cultivating Teamwork
Since the beginning of TISP, ambassadors have mentored 30 high school teams—a total of 160 students—competing in robotics competitions sponsored by FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). These competitions involve student teams constructing a robot in six weeks to face-off in challenges against other teams’ robots. Prior to and during this intense build time, ambassadors meet with teams for about eight hours a week, sharing knowledge of the engineering design process, computer-aided design (CAD), and programming languages as well as helping teams create prototypes of design ideas. Often, ambassadors also help high school students prepare for college and consider engineering careers as they spend time together.
Dr. Fougere acknowledged the impact of Argosy’s grant in TISP’s work with FIRST® teams, as the funding helped the program successfully recruit more ambassadors with past high school experience in FIRST® robotics. “The thing that’s unique about this model is that most students who did FIRST® in high school had to stop, but now they can continue. This is great for FIRST and for those students,” Fougere noted. In their recruitment efforts, TISP also increased the number of women as well as underrepresented minorities in the program. “With the Argosy Foundation grant, we were essentially able to double the FIRST mentors that we have on the various teams,” Fougere explained. The success of the mentors’ work is reflected in high school teams’ recent achievements. In April 2014, Boston University Academy received FIRST Regional Chairman’s award and several teams have qualified for FIRST® World Championship in St. Louis, MO, which is an international competition. Moreover, three high school students, impacted by the ambassadors’ mentoring and outreach, have received full scholarships to attend BU and become the next wave of ambassadors.
Future Goals and Challenges
Going forward, TISP will pursue two main goals—(1) continuing to encourage participation by underrepresented groups in science and technology, and (2) cultivating success for urban robotics teams by improving the training and deployment of the robotics mentors. A key challenge facing TISP involves its work in urban schools, as those schools are more likely to experience changes in coaches and teachers, low funding and low levels of student participation, and a shortage of adult mentors for robotics competitions.
And, Dr. Fougere believes that this is only the beginning of TISP’s work, as she maintains that the model she has designed can make an impact beyond Boston University. “I’d love to put all this stuff together, research and prove that it works, and be able to share the model with other universities,” she explained. If that happens, students like Morgan Parker will continue to inspire others and arrive at a better understanding of their roles as societal engineers. “For me, working as an ambassador and seeing students get excited about engineering reaffirmed my own love for engineering,” Morgan explained.
The Argosy Foundation is proud to partner with BU’s College of Engineering in support of their innovative work, and we are excited about TISP’s future. For more information, please visit their website.