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Undaunted passion: Making STEM education accessible

Chelsea Yates


HCDE major Tsewone Melaku. Photo by Dennis Wise / University of Washington.

Tsewone Melaku discovered engineering in high school through a UW mentorship program. Now a UW student majoring in HCDE, she is aligning her interests in engineering with her passion to make STEM education accessible to underrepresented high school students.

Melaku benefited from many of the same UW college access programs in which she now holds leadership roles, such as the Dream Project and the Women’s Center Making Connections program. She shares with us why it’s important to prioritize social justice issues and how she balances volunteering with her engineering studies.

What led you to the UW?

I attended high school here in Seattle, first at Ingraham and then at Chief Sealth. I struggled with math during my sophomore year to the point that I nearly failed. A friend was involved with Making Connections, a college readiness program offered through the UW Women’s Center. The program prepares Seattle-area high school girls from low-income communities for success in STEM fields in college. It offers everything from one-on-one tutoring and mentoring to college tours, job shadowing opportunities and college application workshops.

I got involved with Making Connections because I needed a tutor, but it opened my eyes to so much more! I’m the first in my family to go to college; my parents are from Ethiopia, and the higher education system here was completely unfamiliar to us. After Making Connections, I sought out all the admissions support programs I could. I passed my math class and attended Young, Gifted and Black, a UW conference on social consciousness, cultural awareness and the importance of higher education for Black high school students. I signed up for the Dream Project, a program that partners UW students with first-generation and underrepresented high school students to assist in the college admissions process. I also joined UW’s Young Executives of Color program, certain that I’d major in business.

Why did you decide to study HCDE?

I first learned about HCDE through a Making Connections networking event, where a panel of Seattle-area women engineers talked to us about their careers. One woman — an employee at Boeing — was an HCDE alumna. I’d never heard of HCDE, but as she described it, I just kept thinking how cool it sounded. HCDE focuses on end users; it’s a field of engineering that’s all about helping people, and that really aligned with my personal interests.

Not long after enrolling at the UW, I switched from being a pre-business major to majoring in HCDE. It’s been a great fit. I love the way it’s trained me to think creatively and solve problems.

Tell us more about how HCDE and your academic goals overlap with your interests in creating awareness, access and exposure to opportunities for underrepresented high school students.

I want to use my engineering background to help transform education, so I’m also minoring in the UW’s Education, Learning & Society program. My research interests involve the lack of diversity in higher education, particularly in STEM. I want to figure out ways to create better technology — and technical literacy — for underserved K-12 classrooms. There are huge gaps between technology, access and underrepresented communities. I hope to apply HCDE’s approach to user-centered problem solving and design to create technologies that meet the needs of low-income and underserved students.

I want to put my degree to work after graduating, but I also want to go to graduate school and study human-computer interaction. My ultimate goal is a Ph.D. in engineering education.

Melaku, Kaneko-Hall, and Chen constructing an affinity diagram “I love the way HCDE has trained me to think creatively and solve problems,” says Melaku. Here she constructs an affinity diagram with classmates Tsuki Kaneko-Hall and Jason Chen. Photo by Dennis Wise / University of Washington

You continue to be involved with Making Connections and the Dream Project as an engineering student. Why?

Making Connections is my second family, and I help anytime I can. I want kids to believe that higher education is an option, even if it seems impossible. I’ve been there; I know how tough it can be when you’re fifteen and asked to think about your college aspirations, yet the idea of going to college seems like something beyond your world. If I can share my experiences and skills in ways that help high schoolers see themselves as part of this world, then count me in. Especially for girls of color. If we want girls of color to pursue STEM, they need to see women of color being successful in STEM fields.

I got involved with the Dream Project primarily to help transform it. I valued what the program was trying to do but from my high school experience, I saw ways it could be improved. I was invited to join the Dream Project’s leadership team and teach UW students how to be mentors in high schools after serving as a mentor myself. We’ve reshaped the course curriculum to include — and prioritize — topics like power, privilege, oppression, racism and social awareness. Many of the Dream Project’s student mentors are white or come from privileged backgrounds, and most of the high school students they’re mentoring aren’t, and we felt that it was crucial to overhaul our training practices. We’ve also updated the program’s mission statement and introduced racial equity workshops for leaders and mentors.

You’re also involved with the UW chapter of National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE). Tell us about your roles with these organizations.

I started working with WiSE this summer as the program assistant for WiSE UP BRIDGE, a first-year academic program for women engineering students. Last year, I served as UW NSBE’s Pre-College Initiative (PCI) Chair and am now serving as the regional PCI Chair. In this role, I work with Black high school students who want to pursue engineering in college. This year we're starting starting two NSBE Jr. high school chapters in Seattle! In addition to helping them and the other UW chapter leaders, I’m also planning the regional PCI conference for NSBE.

Melaku mentoring high school student at Women's Center. “I want kids to believe that higher education is an option, even if it seems impossible,” says Melaku, who mentors high school students through access programs like Making Connections at the UW Women’s Center. Photo courtesy of the UW Women’s Center.

How do you balance your engineering studies with your commitments to UW access programs?

I’m involved in a lot of campus activities, but they’re activities that I’m passionate about. I never feel like, “Oh great, I have to go do X.” It’s always more like, “Cool, I get to go do X.” I try to make time for the things that make me happy. I’m fortunate that engineering is one of those things. Helping people makes me happy, and through HCDE I’m learning all sorts of new ways to help.

I wanted to be an engineer to prove that I could do it and to show other Black girls that they could, too. Being an engineering student — as well as a mentor, teacher and advocate on campus — is a lot of work, but it’s work that I care about and that I want to do. That makes a huge difference, I think.

Learn about the UW’s commitment to diversity and access programs for engineering students.

Originally published August 16, 2017