Black History Month: Alaine Allen Is Investing in the Future of Youth

Issue Date: 
February 27, 2012
Alaine AllenAlaine Allen

As a student, Alaine Allen excelled in math and science, all the way from elementary school through college. And in her first job as a physics teacher in the Woodland Hills School District, she was confident that she could engage her students in the sciences. Early on in her career, Allen realized that her true passion was more in connecting with and guiding students than in teaching science.

One particular incident brought this realization to the fore: During a fifth-period physics class, a student burst into Allen’s classroom in tears. The student, a teen mother, told Allen that her boyfriend had been shot and hospitalized the night before. Following school protocol, Allen walked with the student to the Student Assistance Program office.

“The woman in the office quickly returned the student to my room and offered to cover [my] class while I talked to the student,” Allen recalled, adding, “I could teach physics well, and I could engage the students. But I realized that I was more excited and passionate about making a personal connection with the students.”

So, in 1994, Allen left the classroom to work full-time for the University of Pittsburgh’s INVESTING NOW, a program that encourages high school students from underrepresented populations to choose careers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Today, she is the director of the Swanson School of Engineering’s Pitt Engineering Career Access Program (PECAP), which helps open the STEM fields to students from underrepresented populations. PECAP comprises both INVESTING NOW and Pitt EXCEL, a program for Pitt students enrolled in the Swanson School of Engineering.

Allen, who earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and secondary education in 1991 from Lincoln University, received her master’s degree in education from Pitt’s School of Education in 1993.

Since returning to Pitt, Allen has made her mark on campus. In 2011, she received the Chancellor’s Affirmative Action Award, given annually to an outstanding University program area or individual that has made a significant contribution in affirmation action. In his letter to Allen informing her of the award, Nordenberg said the selection committee “lauded you as an ideal administrator whose experience with the range of services provided by the Swanson School of Engineering and the University brings the continuity of commitment and vision necessary to maintain both the reach and the depth of PECAP’s affirmative action mission.” Nordenberg also noted that he was “particularly impressed” that Allen’s nomination was supported by two former PECAP participants.

In 2010, Pitt’s African American Alumni Council presented Pitt EXCEL with the 2010 It Takes a Village Sankofa Award, recognizing the program’s efforts to support the academic success of Pitt’s African American students.

While Allen said the accolades are encouraging, one of her biggest career rewards is watching students succeed. She said she and Darryl Wiley, the INVESTING NOW assistant director, hope to expand the reach of the precollege program by increasing the number of students involved and discovering new opportunities to engage high school students in math and science.

The INVESTING NOW program, established in 1988, accepts between 50 and 60 new eighth-grade students each year. Successful applicants must have an academic grade point average of 3.0 or higher, the recommendation of a teacher, healthy standardized test scores, and an interest in a STEM field.

Participating students take summer noncredit math, science, and writing classes in the morning followed by an afternoon class involving them in a hands-on engineering project. With a total of 150 students in the program today, INVESTING NOW works with students as they progress through high school, offering academic enrichment as well as advising, tutoring, hands-on science and engineering seminars, and other opportunities designed to help them make informed college choices.

“Some students are the first in their families to attend college and don’t know how to navigate the process,” Allen said. “In other instances, parents may not know the [STEM] profession or the college admissions requirements to enter those majors. We are here to offer students support and to encourage parent involvement.”

The INVESTING NOW program has impressive results: 94 percent of the most recent class, the Class of 2011, enrolled in college, with 64 percent pursuing STEM-related fields. Of those students, 13 percent enrolled at Pitt.

Allen said she understands the value of teacher encouragement for teens. When she was in middle school, a teacher encouraged her to explore her passion for math and science through a similar program. As an Allderdice High School student, she enrolled in the precollege program INROADS, where she attended summer classes at Duquesne University and even a class in Pitt’s Benedum Hall. The math, science, and writing courses helped to strengthen Allen’s academic skills and introduced her to STEM careers.

“I was attracted to the STEM field through the interaction with teachers and other adults who encouraged me to pursue a career in science,” Allen said. “No one I was connected to personally at the time could help me navigate a career and future in math and science. I was attracted to these precollege programs because of the interaction and guidance.”

In addition to reaching students years before they enter college, Allen also works with enrolled students at Pitt through the Pitt EXCEL program. The comprehensive initiative aims to bolster the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of engineering students from underrepresented populations.

Allen describes the Pitt EXCEL Summer Engineering Academy as an academic boot camp for Pitt freshmen, with the students taking math, physics, chemistry, and engineering problem-solving classes. They also learn about campus resources and career development. The sessions include community building and “mandatory fun time,” Allen said, which includes game night, a trip to Kennywood, and a Pirates game.

In addition to the Summer Engineering Academy, Pitt EXCEL offers participants academic counseling, tutoring, peer mentoring and professional development.  “The rigor of the engineering program requires a support network,” Allen said. “Students need to understand that they will have a better chance of being successful if they enter it knowing about these supports.”

As a former science major, Allen said she remembers the stress of the academics: “At Lincoln, I had a program similar to Pitt EXCEL and teachers who helped me through the stress and pressure of being a STEM student,” Allen said. “We know Pitt is a large university and students are adults, but it is important to help guide our students through this process.”