Maker Ambassador program sponsored by Lockheed Martin aims to increase diversity

Initiative based in the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory cultivates collaborative and inclusive maker spaces to encourage confidence and creativity in problem solving


By Samantha Chavanic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A $20,000 gift from Lockheed Martin has helped to establish and support the continued advancement of the Maker Ambassador program, an initiative designed to engage women and other traditionally underrepresented engineering students interested in making and leading.

Born out of a collaboration between the BUILD Nights and the Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program, Maker Ambassadors provides training to women and and other traditionally underrepresented engineering students who plan, promote, lead and execute the BUILD Nights held at the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory. The year-long program aims to increase confidence in designing, building and leading in making activities and to establish better awareness of maker spaces and leadership opportunities available at Penn State University Park.

The idea for the initiative began as a brainstorming session between Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, and Meg Handley, acting director of ELD, associate director of engineering leadership outreach and assistant teaching professor, where the two discussed ways to increase the impact of BUILD Nights and ensure the longevity of the program.

“By creating the Maker Ambassadors, we are strengthening the foundation of the BUILD program and encouraging students to develop leadership and making skills,” Menold said. “Gender diversity represents a unique challenge for engineering education, and literature has shown that many factors contribute to STEM environments being less desirable, or at worse, hostile, for women. The Maker Ambassador program empowers women to not only participate in but create an engineering community that cultivates inclusive maker spaces where all engineers can grow into confident and creative problem solvers.”

Handley said a partnership between Menold and the ELD program immediately blossomed, as Menold’s vision aligns perfectly with ELD’s core value of providing professional skills training to engineering students to help them achieve their full potential in a technical career.

“Women participating as Maker Ambassadors are developing key skills to lead others to think creatively, problem solve, and build confidence in their abilities,” Handley said. “These are key aspects of engineering leadership development. Women participating in this program are developing self-leadership, which includes efficacy and confidence in their abilities, positioning them to successfully tackle challenges of workplace settings where they may face unconscious biases toward their identities as engineers.”

Upon learning of the program through established relationships with the Learning Factory; the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs and ELD, leadership at Lockheed Martin wanted to help create more opportunities for women and other traditionally underrepresented engineering students.

“The Maker Ambassador program is an exciting program,” said Lauren Donohue, systems engineering manager at Lockheed Martin. “It provides an opportunity to extend hands-on learning beyond the classroom. It also provides valuable technical and leadership learning opportunities for women in the College of Engineering. The Maker Ambassador program has been a great way for Lockheed Martin to meet students who have a passion for innovation.”

Megan Costantino, a mechanical engineering junior minoring in engineering leadership development, is one of these students.

When she heard about the BUILD Nights from Menold, she immediately became interested in creating a group centered around helping women engineering students gain hands-on building skills and learn more about the Learning Factory. After attending her first BUILD Night as a sophomore, she was hooked.

“I recall leaving and saying to myself ‘I finally know why I want to be an engineer,” Costantino said. “Since that moment, I have tried to work very closely with Dr. Menold and Dr. Handley to enhance the BUILD Nights from a student perspective.”

As a Maker Ambassador, Costantino’s responsibilities include working closely with other Maker Ambassadors to plan and run the BUILD Nights. Maker Ambassadors reach out to various groups on campus that may have an interest in the making events, prototype and build the project before event and assist the BUILD Night participants during the event. If the project involves Learning Factory equipment that needs a staff member to operate it, Maker Ambassadors are trained and certified to run the various types of equipment found in the facility.

Like Costantino, Imani Murray, a junior in materials science and engineering, was interested in Menold and Handley’s mission to diversify involvement at the Learning Factory. Once the Maker Ambassador application was available, Murray knew she needed to apply.

“It was my opportunity to [help] diversify a community that is usually not utilized by certain groups,” she said. “Being heavily involved with NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), I see the disparities that surround our community when it comes to being comfortable in predominantly white spaces. The Maker Ambassador program aims to diversify the creative learning space of the Learning Factory.”

Murray explained that her involvement with the Maker Ambassador program has put her in a leadership role that allows her to work with inspiring people and to inspire others to step outside of their comfort zones.

“I represent another group that is not heavily represented at the Learning Factory,” she said. “It is easier to be in environments where you see people like you. We aim to get more diverse faces into the Learning Factory because we all have unique ideas, skills and backgrounds.”

For sophomore chemical engineering student Erin LeMay, becoming a Maker Ambassador has enhanced her confidence in ways she never thought of.

“I would never have thought I would do something like Maker Ambassadors; it’s really out of my comfort zone,” LeMay said. “Since becoming a Maker Ambassador, however, I have grown in almost every aspect. I face challenges straight on, I am learning how to effectively use my resources, I have no problem standing up in front of 40 people and explaining a build and I now have a network full of professors, professionals and many respected people. Maker Ambassadors has given me the key to becoming the woman I want to be.”

Donohue explained that helping to provide students like LeMay with this influential experience is something Lockheed Martin is pleased to be a part of and excited to see grow.

“The Maker Ambassador program provides a unique opportunity for engineers to expand their technical knowledge, develop their leadership skills and ultimately build passion for careers in engineering,” she said. “Growing diversity in the College of Engineering, especially with passionate engineering leaders, will help us all build diverse, high-performing teams.”

The next phase of the Maker Ambassadors will also be supported by a grant from VentureWell.


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Megan Lakatos

A group of people stand around a large table covered in making materials and power tools.

Dozens of women and other traditionally underrepresented engineering students attended a recent BUILD Night held at the Learning Factory. IMAGE: MEG HANDLEY

Nine women stand in two rows and pose for a photo.
Maker Ambassadors who attended the recent BUILD Night include: bottom, left to right: Emma LeMay, Monica Abdelmalek, Megan Costantino and Alena Schwartz; top, left to right: Lauren Matuszkiewicz, Katrina Verlinde, Adria Lewis, Lauren Onweller and Sierra Hicks. IMAGE: MEG HANDLEY

Women sitting around a table listen to another woman, who is standing, talk.
As a Maker Ambassador, Imani Murray, a junior in materials science and engineering, helps lead a BUILD Night. IMAGE: MEG HANDLEY

“The Maker Ambassador program empowers females to not only participate in, but create an engineering community that cultivates inclusive maker spaces where all engineers can grow into confident and creative problem solvers.”
—Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering