Dreams took flight during MITES for NASA technologist

Dr. Aprille Ericcson, a 1980 alumnae of MITES, is Deputy to the Chief Technologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Dr. Aprille Ericcson, a 1980 alumna of MITES, is Deputy to the Chief Technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Seventeen-year-old Aprille Ericsson strapped into the flight simulator at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, while taking part in MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) in 1980 during the summer before her senior year. A talented student from Brooklyn expecting to pursue a law degree, this was her closest experience to piloting an aircraft. An affinity for aerospace was born when she stepped out of the simulator and saw her score –103, just three points from perfect. “That was my first real interest in aeronautics and astronautics,” she says. Since taking part in MITES, Ericsson has held several positions in the aerospace industry, including her current job as Deputy to the Chief Technologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Now, she works to identify gaps in technology and enable researchers to fulfill those future technological needs.

Ericsson’s high school algebra teacher, also an MIT alum, recommended the MITES program, formerly UNITE, which she later attended. The program today runs for six weeks in June and July and gives engineering and science-inclined students the chance to experience life and college-level courses at MIT during the summer between their junior and senior years. While on campus, MITES students create meaningful networks of friends and staff, and most MITES alumni go on to study science and engineering at top universities. Ericsson pursued her undergraduate degree at MIT and her graduate study at Howard, where she became the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the university.

During MITES, Ericsson learned about her growing desire to help people and found fellow students who shared her excitement for learning. The combination of intrinsically motivated students and encouraging instructors and teaching assistants gave her confidence to enter the aerospace field. “The people supporting the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs are really bright people I still admire,” says Ericsson.

MITES also taught Ericsson how to handle crises. During a bridge building competition, she injured her finger while feverishly trying to finish the project. “I learned to work under duress, in short periods of time. I learned to accomplish things and put my mind to it,” says Ericsson. Despite her injury, she was able to return and finish her bridge for the competition. The ability to thrive under strict time constraints and stressful situations was a critical skill she developed at MITES. Under the inspiration of MITES, Ericsson attended MIT a year later.

In July 1980 during MITES, Ericcson learned to work in high pressure scenarios during a bridge building competition.

In July 1980 during MITES, Ericcson learned to work in high pressure scenarios during a bridge building competition.

After MITES and MIT, Ericsson entered the workforce and found a series of fulfilling positions. “I find it particularly enticing to improve people’s lives and make them easier,” says Ericsson. “The projects that I work on have to be impactful in our communities. They have to be positive and not destructive.” Instead of working on missile defense, Ericsson attended graduate school at Howard University, where she developed control algorithms for applications like the International Space Station. While a Ph.D. intern, she joined the ranks of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, creating methods of attitude control simulation and software testing.

Along with creating useful technologies that benefit people on a larger scale, Ericsson enjoys the thrill of solving complex problems. “When you’re trying to obtain a goal, you don’t know how many steps you’ll need to take,” says Ericsson. “Spending an entire lifetime on helping to solve questions and problems is really cool.”

Ericsson has also devoted herself to empowering young women and minorities interested in STEM careers. She has done this though active membership in the NASA GSFC Speakers Bureau as a Mentor and University Professor, and previously as an aerospace teacher for students at Howard University Public Charter Middle School of Math & Science.

Ericsson advises aspiring scientists and engineers to maintain high hopes for the future and seek out opportunities with patience and perseverance. “The prizes of life are at the end of each journey,” she says. “Have lofty goals, believe in them and you will achieve them. You will always get there, but you will achieve a lot more than you thought you would.”

Speakers at middle school program orientation overcame barriers to study science and engineering

Mentor and mentee and dad attend the 2014 STEM Mentoring Program Orientation on October 18.

Mentor Kevin Smith, a senior studying computer engineering at Boston University, middle school mentee Kevin Matos, a sixth grader from Lawrence, Massachusetts, and his father Pedro Matos attend the 2014 STEM Mentoring Program Orientation on October 18 (photo by Meredith Lawrence).

Public middle school students from Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, their families, and undergraduate mentors attended orientation for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Mentoring Program at MIT on October 18. As part of the orientation, three keynote speakers from MIT and Harvard shared experiences that led them to study and seek careers in science and engineering.

Perko_MIT_179

Danielle Olson (photo by Greg Perko)

Mentors changing minds

Danielle Olson, a recent graduate of MIT in computer science and engineering, gave the first talk. She said that despite her love of science growing up, she couldn’t picture herself as a scientist because of prevailing gender stereotypes. When she was introduced to a mentor through a program offered by her high school, the picture she had of a scientist suddenly changed. “My [original] idea of a scientist was not an outgoing, creative, black female; my idea of a scientist was Bill Nye,” said Olson. “My mentor looked nothing like my idea of a scientist. It was because of this that I changed my major from journalism to science.”

After rejecting preconceived ideas about the kind of career she could have, something different called to Olson. She urged the middle school students in the audience to take a closer look at what their futures could look like if they reject stereotypes and obstacles. Olson left the students with one assignment: “I challenge you to use what you have to do what you can. The master has failed more times than the novice has even tried.”

David Boone

David Boone (photo by Greg Perko)

Staying hungry

The next speaker at the orientation was David Boone, a Harvard junior who founded his university’s Undergraduate Robotics Club and completed an internship at Microsoft. Like Olson, it never occurred to Boone to study science and engineering as a high school student despite having a deep interest in those fields. Instead, he expected to pursue law or medicine. “Growing up smart in Cleveland, you either become a doctor or a lawyer,” said Boone. “No one ever thought to tell me, David you’re smart, why don’t you become an engineer?”

Feeling a lack of challenge at his high school, he applied and was accepted to the Minority Introduction to Science and Engineering (MITES) program at MIT. Boone’s experience during MITES changed his perception of success and opened him up to a new way of thinking about his own future. “For the first time, I was surrounded by students just as excited about engineering as me with very similar backgrounds.”

Now, Boone lives his life in a way that reflects his ideals and allows him to be a role model for his family. “My siblings look up at me for inspiration,” he said. “I can’t get too content, I have to stay hungry.”

Mareena Robinson-Snowden (photo by Greg Perko)

Mareena Robinson-Snowden (photo by Greg Perko)

Ignoring fear

Mareena Robinson-Snowden was the last to speak, sharing the story of her career path, which took several turns and detours prior to her current position as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. She talked about the importance of not letting fear prevent students from reaching their goals. In high school, Robinson-Snowden feared that she wasn’t capable of understanding math concepts like her peers. “My fear was paralyzing,” she said. “It kept me from learning. I had established a belief about myself, and once you establish that belief, your mind looks for evidence to color that belief.”

Robinson-Snowden stressed that students passionate about science and engineering should not become disheartened about the subjects they study, and that they should never give up on challenges because of fear. Today, she has overcome her own fears and serves as co-president of the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers.

STEM Program Academic Advisor Catherine Park closed the orientation by thanking the speakers, middle school students, families and mentors, and provided some context on why the program is important. “Middle school can be tough sometimes, and the transition to high school can be even tougher,” said Park, “That’s why we match our students with people who went through it all in the not so distant past.”

—Sydney Lester

Workshop helps high school students communicate science to the public

132 rising high school seniors from across the country fine-tuned their abilities to communicate science to lay audiences during a science-writing workshop on July 30 at MIT. Part of the MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) conference, the workshop featured a panel of ten experienced writers and highlighted the importance of communication skills in science and engineering careers.

MOSTEC students present information in science writing style at the annual conference.

MOSTEC students present on their peers’ science and engineering projects in layman’s terms during the workshop.

The conference was part of the MOSTEC program, a six-month experience that challenges high school seniors with rigorous, technical projects and gives them the opportunity to discuss science, engineering and college admissions in a supportive online community. Inspired by the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, this year’s four-week MOSTEC science writing course, which included the July 30 workshop, matched ten science writers from the MIT graduate program with groups of 12 to 14 students whom they taught remotely before the conference. Program Coordinator Louis Fouché added the course to MOSTEC in 2012.

One MOSTEC science writing instructor who participated in the workshop was Emily Ruppel, who studied English literature for her undergraduate degree and felt unsure of her career path before finding a home at MIT. As a graduate student, she learned how apply her nonfiction writing skills to science and technology stories. “The MIT graduate program has a focus on really making you a better writer,” said Ruppel. With a new passion for science writing, she jumped at the opportunity to teach the MOSTEC course upon finishing her graduate studies.

Ruppel sees the course as crucial to the success of the future scientists of MOSTEC, who will one day find themselves writing grant proposals for their own research funding. “Writing and communication are such integral parts of the process of science,” Ruppel said. “Scientists can explain their projects to a multitude of audiences, so the better prepared they are to talk to those audiences, the better prepared they are for science.”

Science writing instructors teach students how to simplify sentences for general audiences.

Instructors share tips on simplifying language in science writing intended for the general public.

Another reason science writing is so important, according to MOSTEC science writing instructor Erin Weeks, is that the public plays a significant role in scientific advancement. “So many discoveries are made with public funding, so scientists owe it to the public to tell them what they’ve been doing with that funding,” said Weeks.

During the on-campus workshop, instructors led activities to test students’ ability to write with clarity and brevity. During the first exercise, instructors presented complex sentences for students to simplify. In another exercise, students paired off and discussed their MOSTEC project work with partners, who presented what they learned to the group. Whenever students heard something an audience might not understand, they “buzzed” for the speaker to use more accessible language.

Through both exercises, instructors reinforced that communicating with general audiences requires writers to think carefully about word choice and narrative. “You have to be very entertaining,” Ruppel said. “You want your audience to enjoy it so much that they don’t realize they’re picking up complex concepts along the way.”

The panel of instructors fielded questions for the second part of the workshop. MOSTEC student Ashia Ajani, a Colorado native with a passion for poetry, asked about blending her own creative brand with the technical elements of science writing. Ruppel responded with an excerpt from the description of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing: “Science writers may, or may not, hold academic credentials in science or engineering. But they are always humanists, one foot in the sciences, the other in the arts, as apt to be seduced by a shapely sentence as by an elegant scientific idea.

MOSTEC students left with a better understanding of science writing and how to communicate their ideas and research. “I’m hoping that this course breaks down the notion that science isn’t for everybody,” said Fouché. “You want science to benefit everyone. I’m hoping as time moves forward that scientists more clearly see the importance of being able to engage in scientific discourse with the general public.”

—Words by Sydney Lester, photos by Meredith Lawrence

Lunch with SanDisk CEO celebrates OEOP alumni

Leaders from the SanDisk Corporation joined MIT students and staff on September 19 at the Boston Marriott Cambridge for a lunch that acknowledged undergraduates who have benefitted from SanDisk-supported high school programs and undergraduate scholarships.

“MIT is a special place for SanDisk,” said SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra, who praised the Institute’s research, international programs and focus on interdisciplinary education. “MIT is among the very best when it comes to the technology and engineering engagement that it provides to students.”

Part of the lunch celebrated SanDisk’s support of MIT’s STEM education outreach at the high school level. Over the past two years, SanDisk has sponsored dozens of students in MIT engineering enrichment programs for rising high school seniors from across the country. Those programs – Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), Engineering Experience at MIT (E2@MIT) and MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) – primarily serve students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds.

The lunch also highlighted SanDisk’s support of MIT at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As part of the SanDisk Scholars Program, the company has sponsored scholarships for undergraduate students in each grade level for the past three years. SanDisk also partners with the VI-A M.Eng. Thesis Program – a five-year program in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that matches students with industry internships and awards them bachelor’s and master’s degrees – as well as the Leaders for Global Operations program – a dual degree program in engineering and management innovation run by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management.

The SanDisk executive team members at the lunch – five of whom are MIT alumni – discussed other ways the company may look to support MIT’s preparation of engineering leaders in the future. SanDisk Senior Vice President Manish Bhatia ’93, SM ’99, MBA ’99 said the company is looking into sponsoring undergraduate research.

“One of the best things about MIT is that there’s no way for you to get an engineering degree here without doing research,” Bhatia said. “It’s a fundamental part of being an engineer in the real world, and it’s one of the things that separate MIT engineers.”

During the lunch, MIT students and leadership from SanDisk had an opportunity to learn about each other’s work. “Hearing about what each one of you is doing is just mind-boggling,” Mehrotra said. “We are so proud to be sponsoring the SanDisk Scholars as well as the MITES, E2@MIT and MOSTEC programs.”

Many SanDisk leaders spoke before the full group, covering topics ranging from advances in flash memory technology, to career opportunities at SanDisk, to the importance of networking.

“You are the future leaders,” said James Goldsberry, Senior Director of Engineering for SanDisk at the company’s new location in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “Carry the network you have here throughout your whole life, because these will be the future leaders of your sister companies. You’re going to lean on them as you proceed in your career.”

An outpouring of thanks concluded the event. “Programs like ours wouldn’t happen without sponsors and supporters like SanDisk,” said Shawna Young, executive director of the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. “SanDisk is making a tremendous impact on the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Words by Nick Holden, photos by Pierce Harman

This story was also published on MIT News.

The thrill of the ride

When he was seven years old, Brandon Holloway first gazed up at Apollo’s Chariot — the tallest, fastest roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. “It was so huge you could see it from the highway,” he says. “When I finally got the courage to ride it, it was the middle of the night — pitch black — and I went by myself. The rest of my family was deathly afraid.”

Holloway strapped in, ascended the signature 170-foot chain lift hill, and took the plunge. “The drop went on forever. I was screaming all the way down,” he says. “I remember explicitly thinking afterward, ‘I want to design rides like this.’”

As a graduating senior in mechanical engineering, Holloway is on his way to a career in ride design. Although his track from rural Virginia to MIT featured a number of unexpected dips and turns, he held on and recently made the stop on Killian Court to pick up his diploma.

Brandon Holloway was inspired by a roller coaster and had his passions fueled by MITES.

Brandon Holloway was inspired by a roller coaster and had his passions fueled by MITES.

Rural roots

Holloway grew up in Smithfield, a town of 8,000 residents, about 70 miles southeast of Richmond. Graduates of Smithfield High School tend not to stray far from home. “A lot of the kids don’t leave the state for college — if they do go to college. There’s a cotton field across from my high school,” he says. “Honestly, MIT wasn’t even on my radar.”

Holloway had other plans. He exhausted the Advanced Placement and honors math and science courses at his high school and sought additional online resources to prepare for a future beyond Smithfield. During his junior year, his guidance counselor told him about MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) Program — a six-week residential, academic enrichment experience that aims to engage highly talented students from traditionally underserved or underrepresented populations. Holloway applied, was accepted, and travelled to Boston in June 2009 for his first visit to the MIT campus.

“It kicked my butt”

Arriving in Boston, Holloway experienced his first extended stay in a major city — and was reminded of what had brought him there. “Riding the subway for the first time was the coolest experience,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘How does this work? How is it going so fast? How does it not go off the track?’”

Through his classes in the MITES Program, Holloway experienced something else he hadn’t in Virginia: failure. “It kicked my butt,” he says. “In high school, I was getting As left and right; I didn’t even have to try. At MITES, you get that first grade back, and it’s a shock to your whole system.”

Holloway found support with his peers. Through long days and late-night study sessions, he and his classmates formed a family, he says. The experience made him more comfortable with the idea of studying at a world-class institution. “It got my brain into the ‘MIT gear,’” he says. Along with academic support, Holloway’s peers also gave him a new cultural perspective. “In Smithfield, you’re black or you’re white,” he says. “When you come to MITES, not only are you not black or white, you’re African American, or African, or Spanish, or Portuguese — or anything under the rainbow. Everybody has their culture, and everybody’s so proud of that culture.”

Coursework and connections

After MITES, Holloway returned home inspired to aim higher. He applied to MIT early action and matriculated in fall 2010. He thrived in courses with direct connections to his passion for ride design. “When you start taking the core classes like 2.001 (Mechanics and Materials) and 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing), that’s when you start making cool stuff and learning awesome skills — like working with SolidWorks and turning a drawing into a physical product,” he says.

Outside the classroom, Holloway connected with MIT alum Matt DuPlessie ’99 to land an internship at 5 Wits Productions, a company that designs adventure experiences and interactive exhibits for museums, theme parks, and theaters. He also leveraged the Infinite Connection to meet other alumni who work for theme parks and ride builders. With his connections, internship experience, and mechanical engineering degree, Holloway plans to enter the industry soon after graduation.

But Holloway has one debt to settle first. This summer, he returned to MITES as head teaching assistant. While his students grapple with the program’s academic rigor, he plans to help them keep everything in perspective and focus on their goals. “A lot of times people can get bogged down in the classwork and the grading,” he says. “Students need to remember that they’re working toward their passions.” Currently, Holloway is program assistant for national programs for the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs.

—Nick Holden

This story was also published on MIT News.

Senior Corning manager speaks to MITES students in career seminar

Dr. Gregory E. Williams, a 25-year-plus veteran of Corning Incorporated, hosted a career seminar on July 15th at MIT for 72 rising high school seniors as part of Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES). Dr. Williams, who graduated with a degree in physics from MIT in 1983, spoke about his work, the importance of different perspectives in the STEM field, and the value of lifelong friendships and passions the students would develop through MITES.

Dr. Williams talks to the MITES students about the importance of community and passion.

Dr. Williams talks to the MITES students about the importance of community and passion.

“This is the most wonderful experience you’ll ever have in your life: finding gifted, like-minded people,” Dr. Williams said. One of the main goals of the MITES program is to foster a community of motivated individuals who collaborate on projects that interest them in ways that encourage personal development. The students come to MITES from all across the country and from a variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

“I believe that diversity of thought, mind, religion and gender is important,” said Dr. Williams. He explained that today’s technology is the result of multiple viewpoints coming together to explore ideas that might not otherwise be given a chance. Because of these ideas, innovation is occurring so rapidly that some of today’s developments won’t see widespread adoption for twenty or more years, Dr. Williams said.

Students respond to questions on modern technology and the future of STEM.

Students respond to questions on modern technology and the future of STEM.

One piece of technology that attracted Dr. Williams to Corning is still a cornerstone of the company’s business. “Early in my career, I wanted to do something to further mankind, so I went to Corning, where we built fiber optic cables that stretched from the U.S. to the U.K.,” he said. Because of their high conductivity and strength, fiber optic cables remain a better choice for transmitting information than traditional copper cables.

Dr. Williams encouraged MITES students to search for the things that inspire them just like his work at Corning does. “Many of you will become part of the research and development field, seeing things that have never been seen before,” Dr. Williams said. “I want you to think very carefully about your future. Think hard about why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.”

With the MITES students carefully weighing college and career options, Dr. Williams stressed the importance of getting to know people with similar interests and maintaining those relationships. “When you go back to school, you’re still going to feel like a fish out of water, but now you’ve made friends, maybe friends for life,” he said. “Never stop dreaming.”

Sydney Lester

STEM Program brings local middle school students to MIT for science and engineering enrichment

From July 7 through August 9, 86 students who attend public middle schools in Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, Mass., participated in science and engineering enrichment at MIT through the five-week Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Summer Institute, a component of the STEM Program offered by the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP).

Sixteen instructors, all of whom are undergraduates, taught the students in eight subject areas. Rising sixth graders studied biology and algebra, rising seventh graders studied chemistry and physics, rising eighth graders studied probability and statistics and engineering design, and rising ninth graders studied pre-calculus and robotics. The instructors worked closely with expert mentors to prepare their curricula, and academic advisors provided additional student and instructional support.

A primary goal of the program – which is offered free of charge due to generous support from individuals, foundations, corporations and MIT – is to empower local students with the skills and confidence needed for future success in technical careers.

Probability and Statistics Instructor Mia Bernardino, a civil engineering major at Seattle University, values the STEM Program’s focus on students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds. “I really want to inspire minority students to work in the STEM field,” she says. “There are not many women in the civil engineering field, or engineering in general. I want to be an example for other young women, to show that they can be like me one day and teach others.”

Words by Sydney Lester and Nick Holden, photos by Meredith Lawrence