Our Jumpstart Fellowship Program expansion to Lowell is a collaboration with UMass Lowell and the Mass Tech Collaborative. This is our first year year expanding the program from Boston to Lowell and we’re thrilled that one of the Jumpstart graduates from this cohort will be attending UMass Lowell this fall and is enrolled in the Computer Science program.  Three former Boston Jumpstart alumni are also at UMass Lowell, two have recently completed their first year and one will be a Freshman studying Electrical Engineering.

MassRobotics Expands Jumpstart Fellowship Program to UMass Lowell

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Tamara Waruingi and Agartha Kusi work on a project in the NERVE Center.

By Brooke Coupal

On the first floor of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, Spot, a doglike robot developed by Boston Dynamics, climbs a set of steps. Nearby, Digit, a humanoid robot created by Agility Robotics, walks around the room. Upstairs, a robotic arm picks up cups of varying sizes.

“I remember the first day I came in. I saw all the robots, and I thought it was so cool,” says Tori Jiang, a senior at Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts. “The NERVE Center is such a great space.”

Since January, Jiang has spent her Saturdays at UMass Lowell’s interdisciplinary robotics testing, research and training facility as a member of the MassRobotics Jumpstart Fellowship Program, which provides opportunities for high school girls in Massachusetts to learn about STEM careers in robotics. The program, which originated in Boston in 2021, expanded to UMass Lowell this year with support from the Massachusetts Tech Collaborative.

“MassRobotics has always had a strong relationship with UMass Lowell,” says Joyce Sidopoulos, MassRobotics’ co-founder and chief of operations. “At the NERVE Center, the girls get exposed to a ton of robots, exoskeletons and NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) testing. They get a sense of what it’s like to be in a college. It’s the perfect place for the Jumpstart Fellowship Program expansion.”

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Alexis Dok practices soldering.

Diversifying its ranks remains a challenge for the state’s technology sector.  According to a Mass Technology Leadership Council report, 70% of tech workers are men and 30% are women. Over the past five years, male representation has increased by 16%, compared with a 10% increase for female workers. Additionally, tech workers remain predominantly white, making up 75.7% of the sector.

“The MassRobotics Jumpstart Fellowship Program is building a whole new wave of diverse women who are going to go into tech fields,” Sidopoulos says.

Through the program, which requires no prior knowledge to join, the girls learn computer-aided design, coding, fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting, soldering, circuitry, computer numerical control (CNC) machine operation and ethical ways to use artificial intelligence. They also gained networking skills, as female mentors would regularly meet with them.  One of those mentors was Holly Yanco, director of the NERVE Center and chair of the Miner School of Computer & Information Sciences.

“The students had great questions and were really fun to talk to,” says Yanco, who was recently named an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow fellow. “I’d love to see all these students come to UMass Lowell and be back at the NERVE Center, doing research with us.”

For the girls, the female mentors served as inspiration.

“Knowing that this program has a bunch of women builds up my confidence and teaches me that I have a place,” says Alexis Dok, a junior at Lowell High School. Dok aspires to be a mechanical engineer and says she is interested in attending UMass Lowell, where her sister, Vanessa ’22, ’24, and her brother, Tevin ’19, studied business.

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NERVE Center Director Holly Yanco, back center, meets with the Jumpstart Fellowship group.

The girls spent their February vacation meeting additional professionals at local companies, including Amazon Robotics, New Balance and Brooks Automation. MassRobotics also paired the girls with technology companies for summer internships.

“I’m interning at MITRE, and I’m so excited,” says Jiang, who got to tour its Bedford, Massachusetts, facility during an industry visit. “I can’t believe I’m going to be working there.”

In addition to getting an internship, the girls receive a $1,000 stipend for completing the program.

MassRobotics STEM Educator Alethea Campbell, who supervises the program at UMass Lowell, says she can see how empowering the Jumpstart Fellowship is for participants.

“They start to feel more comfortable in the tech space and can walk away knowing their voice matters,” she says.

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MassRobotics STEM Educator Alethea Campbell, left, assists students learning about a robotic hand.

Patricia Zihindula participated in the program in Boston in 2023 while a senior at Revere High School in Revere, Massachusetts. 

“(The program) was one of the most awesome experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “I got to learn about so many STEM fields, and I met wonderful people.”

Zihindula, who grew up in Congo, applied to UMass Lowell at the start of the fellowship program because of the university’s strong STEM offerings. A visit to the NERVE Center solidified her desire to attend UMass Lowell. 

“That was my first time going to UMass Lowell, and I really liked the campus,” she says. “I knew if they accepted me, this was where I was going to go.”

Zihindula just completed her first year at the university, where she is studying biological sciences with aspirations of joining the medical field. 

“MassRobotics and UMass Lowell are helping me build my career and my character,” she says. “They’re both really great environments for everyone.”