NJIT Summer Classes Lead Her to MIT: Meet Amanda Lazaro

NJIT Summer Classes Lead Amanda Lazaro to MIT

Are boys better in math and science than girls? Are boys innately superior to girls in analytical fields such as engineering?  Naturally aggressive and competitive, are boys bound to outperform girls in technological subjects?     

A series of summer classes offered at NJIT challenges these stereotypes.  The classes at the Women in Engineering & Technology Initiatives FEMME Program, teach girls to delight in the fundamentals of pre-engineering.  And most girls who graduate from FEMME eventually major in science or engineering in college, according to the Center for Pre-college Programs, which runs FEMME.

Take, for example, Amanda Lazaro.  In her younger years, she took three FEMME classes.  The classes bolstered her confidence and sharpened her intellect. So much so that she later graduated from Elizabeth High School as class valedictorian.  She was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she now majors in chemical engineering.  She just finished her freshman year.  

During the summers, though, Amanda returns to NJIT to work as a teaching assistant for FEMME.  It’s her way of helping the program that helped her excel academically.

“I was a teaching assistant (TA) for FEMME 6 last summer,” says Amanda, “and I’m a TA for the same class this summer.  I wanted to TA as a way to give back to the program that did so much for me.   It's also really fun being on the other side of things.  I want to be a good role model for these bright young women and show them that, "I was you, once.  Look where I am now. You can do this!"

In the below interview, Amanda talks about the value of FEMME, her academic background, and her experience as a minority woman studying engineering.  She also offers her views on a debate that never seems to fade:  Are boys biologically superior to girls in math, science and engineering? 

Is FEMME a valuable program? Does it fulfill its mission: to help girls, most of whom are minorities, excel in math, science and engineering?
I believe FEMME is a very valuable program. The great thing about summer enrichment programs such as the FEMME classes is that they enable classroom learning without the threat of a report card.  Also, the classes keep your mind fresh with math and science throughout the summer months, allowing you to be ready once the school year resumes.

What FEMME classes did you take? Looking back, were the classes helpful?
I took FEMME 6 in mechanical engineering, FEMME 8 in biomedical engineering and the FEMME Academy in electrical engineering.  The classes in general were helpful -- some more than others. The concepts for mechanical engineering -- mostly just Newton's three laws -- didn't really stick with me, but when they appeared later in my schooling, I was able to say, "I've seen that before!"  FEMME Academy in electrical engineering was by far the most helpful for me.  I learned a great deal in the class, a lot of which was I used later in my academic career. 

Did the FEMME classes build your confidence when you returned to your school?
The classes definitely strengthened academic concepts and, in many cases, introduced topics that would be covered during the school year at a later date. The confidence came from knowing that I had already studied a certain topic.

Talk about your ethic background and what effect, if any, that had on your education?
I am Filipina.   I attended public schools in Elizabeth, NJ, an extremely diverse urban city (more than half of the population was Hispanic), so teachers rarely stereotyped students based on race. In my town, I like to think of myself as a minority among minorities.  I've never experienced any discrimination.  I have, on a very small degree, experienced the "you're Asian so you must be smart at everything" stereotype.  But it's always said to me in jest, and I take such comments lightly.

Did boys dominate discussions of math and science in your school?
I've never found boys dominating math and science discussions. I did speak up in class a lot.  I've also never known any girls to act dumb for male attention.  If anything, girls were trying their hardest to be smart. That might have been due to the fact I was in a Gifted and Talented program, where students were expected to excel.

Did your high school teachers favor the boys in math and science classes?
In my high school, the girls actually dominated academics. The Gifted and Talented students who attended Elizabeth High School were together as a class (we were blocked in such a way that we took the same academic classes), and there were 18 females and four males.  In addition, I attended the Elizabeth High School graduation for five years in a row and found that every single year the top 50 students were mostly female.  Also, the past three Elizabeth High valedictorians were female (Class of 2006 was Priscilla Molina; Class of 2007 was me; and class of 2008 was Angelica Ortiz).

After graduating as class valedictorian you were accepted at MIT.  How is that?
I love the entire college atmosphere at MIT.  I'm surrounded by people from all parts of the world with completely different backgrounds, but in the classroom we're in the same boat. We're all "drinking from a fire hose" as they say at MIT, and everyone there is extremely supportive. After college, I plan on getting my master’s degree and then work for a major company. I've just finished my freshman year as an undergraduate.

Why'd you major in chemical engineering? 
I'm majoring in chemical engineering because it just seemed right to me. During my high school years, I fell in love with chemistry in the general class, and then went on to AP chemistry. I continued to enjoy the subject immensely. Going into college, I said I’d major in chemistry, but I found that chemical engineering would suit my personality more. I'm much more interested in working through problems than just doing research.  I haven't had many classes in chemical engineering yet (Intro to ChemE will be my first class in the fall at the start of my sophomore year), but I'm sure I'll love it.

You took other pre-college classes at NJIT that included students from top suburban school districts.  Were they ahead of you academically?
I had two friends in my Physics Prep class (a non-FEMME summer program) who attended a science and technology high school in Millburn/Short Hills. The two, Mark and Todd, studied more advanced material in their schools.  So in the NJIT math class, they were put in the more "advanced" half of the class, while I was left behind. The summer program, however, is meant to teach new material and to enlighten students. Just because they were from a top school (whereas I wasn't), didn't mean I was any less intelligent. This was evident in the physics class. Physics was new to all of us, and at the end of the summer program, I received the Excellence in Physics award.

Can your FEMME students compete with girls from top-ranked school districts?
I completely believe my girls can compete with those from top districts. It's not that my girls are less intelligent -- not at all. It's that during the school year, they are held back in their education while others in their classes must catch up. The NJIT summer programs aren't to help students pass classes. The NJIT summer programs are to further the education of students who find joy in continuing their learning.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)