NSF grant helps Vanderbilt train ‘engineering ambassadors’

Vanderbilt University has received a competitive award from Penn State to  host an National Science Foundation–supported workshop to establish a new outreach program that will train students to become ambassadors in engineering education for area middle- and high-school students.

The money will be used by the university’s School of Engineering and the campus Center for Science Outreach to host the first Engineering Ambassadors Network [EAN] workshop at Vanderbilt University this spring. The workshop is designed to train graduate and undergraduate Vanderbilt students as hands-on engineering ambassadors, whose primary goal will be to spark interest in career opportunities in engineering.


Engineering research at Vanderbilt is viewed as ‘cutting edge,’ especially in the field of robotics, according to Pietro Valdastri, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser of the EAN at Vanderbilt.

“When ambassadors speak directly to high school students about opportunities in engineering, it paints a picture of engineering as less academic and more science fiction,” he said. “This program creates a unique opportunity for high school students in the sciences.”

Valdastri became involved with EAN, which originated at Penn State University, when the National Science Foundation helped fund a 2012 national workshop there to help other universities build their own ambassador network. Valdastri received an invitation to attend the inaugural three-day training workshop, and immediately upon his return to Nashville “started the conversation about it” among faculty and staff.


Mary Loveless was one of the first to hear Valdastri’s idea to create EAN at Vanderbilt. Loveless, a biomedical engineer, is also an instructor at the School for Science and Math, a program of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach – a “rigorous and diverse” one that brings two dozen high school students to campus weekly through the school year.

“When he first asked me about the EAN, I hadn’t heard about it,” Loveless said, noting that it appealed to her almost instantly. “It serves multiple purposes, and we serve a community that needs this type of program. Making science sound accessible and current generates excitement – and that excitement is contagious.”

Vanderbilt is one of five universities selected to receive the grant, joining the University of Delaware, Ohio University, Oregon State, and San Jose State. Each school will have a two and a half-day workshop in which future ambassadors will get intensive communication and leadership training. The workshop will be held on March 28-30 at Featheringill Hall.

The EAN has been gaining nationwide popularity as an outreach tool for engineering, but Loveless points out it carries the broader impact of promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula in Tennessee middle and high schools – which aligns it with the goals of Vanderbilt’s outreach endeavors. Its mission is to serve the national need for strong future leaders in engineering and support recruitment of a diverse future generation of engineers.

According to Loveless, EAN can be a program that “shows if you communicate your science effectively to students, you can open new doors for them.”

For more information about EAN, visit http://www.scienceoutreach.org/programs/ean