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Tufts Faculty Honored with Presidential Award for Mentoring Students in STEM

  • Published: 2011-11-25 : Tufts University.
  • Synopsis: Presidential Award for Excellence in science technology engineering and mathematics mentoring.
The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching - The highest honors for U.S. teachers of mathematics and science. Awardees serve as models for their colleagues, inspiration to their communities, and leaders in the improvement of mathematics and science education. Since 1983, more than 4,100 teachers have been recognized for their contributions in the classroom and to their profession.

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Peggy Cebe, professor of physics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, and Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering in Tufts' School of Engineering, have won the Presidential Award for Excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics mentoring.

Tufts is the only institution to have two faculty members honored and the only Boston-area institution to be honored, when the White House announced the 2010/2011 presidential mentoring awards Nov. 15.

Candidates are nominated by their home institutions. The mentoring can involve students at any grade level, from elementary through graduate school. In addition to being honored Dec. 11-13 at events in Washington, recipients receive awards of $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to advance their mentoring efforts.

Cebe and Panetta are known for crafting educational philosophies that embrace students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

Cebe works with undergraduate students who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH).

She has offered this summer internship program - in which she communicates with gestures, finger-spelling, laptops, and pen and paper - for the past nine years, and thirty-four DHH students have participated. They learn how to collect and interpret scientific data and write and present experimental results at national scientific conferences. Most of the interns are co-authors on peer reviewed publications.

The students come from institutions such as Gallaudet, the country's only liberal arts university for the Deaf, and Rochester Institute of Technology, home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. They work on projects related to polymer-based nano-composites and polymers for fuel-cell technology, the same research that Cebe's undergraduate lab assistants work on during the academic year.

"I believe that early exposure to research in the STEM disciplines is the key to getting students excited about science and engineering generally," Cebe says. "Many of the deaf and hard of hearing interns have expressed their view that this was a life-changing experience for them. As a result of this program, many former interns were motivated to pursue advanced degrees and have completed, or are now in, graduate school in STEM-related fields."

In addition to these students, Cebe also has an impressive record of mentoring students over the past 24 years.

She has had 103 undergraduate lab assistants, 66 percent of whom were from underserved populations such as people with disabilities, women, African Americans, and Hispanics.

Panetta founded the successful Nerd Girls program.

In her work, she has sought to challenge the often-negative stereotypes of women engineers and scientists. Her students hone their research skills through real-world interdisciplinary team projects and offers role models to younger girls.

Nerd Girls projects have included building a solar race car, developing alternative energy solutions to power an 18th-century lighthouse off the coast of Rockport, Mass., and devising a system to enable people with physical disabilities to interact more effectively with the assistance of "helper monkeys" trained to aid them with their daily tasks. Ninety-eight percent of Nerd Girls graduates pursue a graduate degree within three years of receiving their undergraduate degree in engineering.

As committee chair of IEEE Women in Engineering, Panetta created and serves as editor-in-chief of the award winning "IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine," sent free to guidance counselors and schools across the country.

"It's exciting to see that we are changing the way the nation views women in engineering and science," says Panetta. "I'm also glad to see that the innovations behind Nerd Girls have received national attention."

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.

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