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Mentoring Excellence

Karen Panetta (EE ’85)

President Barack Obama greets and poses with the 2010 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) recipients in the Oval Office, Dec. 12, 2011.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama greets the 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring Recipients in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, 2011.  Panetta is fifth from the left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

When she graduated from Boston University over 25 years ago, Karen Panetta (EE ’85) saw two obstacles blocking young women from pursuing and completing undergraduate studies in engineering: a dearth of role models and an abundance of negative media portrayals of engineers as socially inept eggheads. So within a few years of joining the ECE faculty at Tufts University, Panetta formed “Nerd Girls,” an innovative program in which teams of female and minority engineering students build their confidence while developing solutions to critical societal challenges, and share their experiences with K-12 girls. Since its inception in 1999, Panetta has personally mentored more than 140 Nerd Girls, 90 percent of whom have gone on to pursue a graduate degree in engineering.

Leveraging her success with Nerd Girls, Panetta has conducted outreach and mentoring activities for more than 30,000 students and educators across the globe to help youth realize their potential to positively affect the world. And now her impact on the next generation of engineers has drawn attention from the highest office in the land: Panetta was recently named as one of eight recipients of the 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Issued to outstanding individuals and organizations at a White House ceremony on December 13, the award recognizes the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science and engineering from elementary to graduate school—particularly those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in these fields. Each recipient receives $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to advance their mentoring efforts.
“This award brings national recognition to the work we’ve done in dispelling the negative, one-dimensional stereotypes of smart women and enabling a more inclusive environment for women and minorities in science and technology,” said Panetta.

Toward that end, she plans to use her award money to help conduct more Nerd Girl outreach events to inner city schools and support more community-based Nerd Girl engineering projects, from designing solar energy systems for a lighthouse to a wireless remote monitoring system.

Panetta was selected for the award based on stellar nominating letters from students, colleagues and administrators, including Evelyn Hirt, IEEE USA President.

“Karen has been recognized for over a decade as our country’s leading expert in innovating successful low-cost methods for disseminating engineering and science to youth, parents, educators and the general public to help recruit young women to the STEM disciplines,” said Hirt.

Since graduating from BU, Panetta, now an IEEE Fellow, has supported women in engineering in several prominent positions within IEEE, including Women in Engineering (WIE) Worldwide Director, WIE Committee Chair and WIE Magazine Editor-in-Chief. She has also mentored women engineering students as advisor to the Tufts University chapters of IEEE and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and served as keynote speaker for an SWE regional conference hosted at BU in 2010. She received the 2006 BU Outstanding Alumni Award and now serves on the BU Engineering Alumni Board.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women received 13.5 percent of all undergraduate degrees awarded in engineering in 1985 when Panetta earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and 16.5 percent in 2009. This slight improvement over a quarter century indicates that the need for mentoring programs for women in engineering remains strong.

“When I was a student, there were almost no women in the College of Engineering, and I wanted camaraderie—to build confidence that I wasn’t alone in the isolation I sometimes felt as a woman in engineering,” said Panetta, the first female electrical engineer given tenure in Tufts’ ECE Department. “Mentorship has been the most enjoyable part of my job, and it’s why I became a professor.”

- Mark Dwortzan
March 2012

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