Coaxing Sharp Young Minds toward STEM Careers

September 2015
Samantha Palazzolo
Samantha Palazzolo

Samantha Palazzolo holds a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, but she's a bit of a salesman, too. She sells the wonders of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to young people hoping to convince them to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Unlike the students she mentors, many of whom lack awareness of technology as a career, Palazzolo grew up among family with a passion for STEM.

"My parents went out of their way to find interesting things for my brother and me to do so we could learn," Palazzolo says. Her brother excelled at chess, and she liked computers and math. Their extended family was in on the act too. "My grandmother would ride into DC with me on the Metro every day to a STEM camp, and she'd help out by manning the snack booth while she was waiting for me."

That camp, a combination of engineering and computer science, coding, soldering electrical components and math without numbers, helped Palazzolo realize that she really liked the work and was good at it. After a series of internships during college, and a short stint at a job in the for-profit world, she joined MITRE as a member of the technical staff, researching wireless networking and communications. She works at MITRE's headquarters in McLean, Virginia, not far from where she grew up.

Staying Engaged through Empowering Research

"The fact that MITRE is not-for-profit and isn't all about making money is important to me. MITRE is known for its work-life balance, and the flexibility is good to have, but more than that is the work. I left my other job because I was bored. Here, I’m never bored."

Her recent research for MITRE involves ways to restore networks and communications capabilities after an occurrence, like a hurricane or tornado, wipes out the existing infrastructure. VolunteerNET, a low-cost, easy-to-deploy cellular network, allows communities to have local communication using their standard cellphones.

"It's important to give people the ability to help themselves out and reduce the burden on first responders as well. MITRE has a role to play in this because we can bridge the gaps that separate commercial communications companies, government, and relief agencies."

In her off hours, she looks for any opportunity to talk with young people, especially those from underrepresented populations, about STEM careers. She volunteers in classrooms at nearby middle schools, at STEM workshops for young people, and even helped launch a robotics club at her old high school.

Opening Young Minds to New Possibilities

"I really like the [STEM] festivals, because a lot of the kids who attend them haven’t been exposed to a lot of science or technology before," Palazzolo says. "When you present STEM and show how cool it is, kids and their parents are really receptive, but it has to be demonstrated so everything takes place separate from the math and the perceived 'scariness'" that many people usually associate with technology and engineering."

At every interaction with young people, she evangelizes the importance and cool factor of STEM careers to encourage kids to consider that path. "I try to be honest with kids. I tell them it's not easy, but if that's what they want to do and they don’t let anyone discourage them, they can do it."

She speaks from experience, too. Confident as she was in her career choice, and ecstatic as she was to be accepted as an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she confronted classmates who said she got in because she is a woman and half Hispanic. One of her high school teachers told her he didn’t think she could cut it.

"Many engineers, especially those in the minority, can share a story about someone telling them they couldn't." She holds herself up as proof that success is within reach. In fact, Palazzolo, MIT Class of 2011, will soon complete her master's degree in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. And along the way, she’ll continue looking for “any excuse to talk about STEM."

—by Molly Manchenton

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