Tufts’ Nerd Girls get $10,000 from Verizon, plan to use it for outreach

Being nerdy has paid off for some Tufts students.

Dr. Karen Panetta and her Nerd Girl team received $10,000 from the Verizon Foundation at the annual Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) barbeque on Wednesday. The money will help them continue their outreach work.

Nerd Girls is “an engineering group that does research and works with industry professionals to develop projects to solve real-world problems,” said Panetta, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The group is designed to get all students, particularly females, involved and interested in engineering.

They submitted a proposal to Verizon to help fund their work and received word two weeks ago that they had been selected to receive the money.

“As a leader in telecommunications and one of the largest private sector employers in Massachusetts, Verizon understands the need to encourage young women to develop their math and science skills and to explore the tremendous opportunities in the field of engineering,” Verizon’s Regional President for Massachusetts and Rhode Island Donna Cupelo said in a statement.

Panetta and Miriam McLean, Tufts’ associate director of corporate and foundation relations, worked for about a year on the proposal, which likely faced heavy competition from other applicants.

“They probably get hundreds of proposals every year,” Panetta said. “They’re looking for something innovative.”

Nerd Girls is just that. “There is no other group like it,” Pannetta said.

Panetta created the group in 2000. “I’m the original Nerd Girl,” she said.

She came up with the concept to help defeat the stereotype of engineering being a boring job and of women engineers not having any fun.

“There’s a stigma attached to women in engineering,” she said. “Most girls don’t want to be engineers.”

The group is comprised of about 10 to 14 students each year. Although it is primarily female, males are also welcome.

“Anyone who wants to join is allowed to,” Panetta said.

It is now a nationally-recognized program and has been featured in publications such as Newsweek. This national publicity sparked interest from Verizon, which then contacted Panetta to do some outreach programs. The two groups collaborated on projects that benefited middle school children.

The Nerd Girls will use the $10,000 to continue these outreach programs “to build confidence in young engineers [and] serve as role models … for a younger generation,” Panetta said.

Panetta worked with senior Steven Warren, who plans the IEEE barbeque, to have the check presentation coincide with the annual event.

Warren believes the coordination went well, describing it as a “festival of food and fun.”

Around 40 students and faculty members attended to eat free food, receive giveaways from Verizon and see the Verizon FiOS truck.

Students also had the opportunity to talk to some Verizon representatives about their technology.

“It was nice. It was very casual,” Warren said. “Very little can go wrong when electrical engineers are behind a Weber grill.”