UMaine receives $750,000 from NSF to support low-income engineering students

During his tenure, Wilhelm Friess, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine, saw a pattern of low-income, talented first-generation engineering students drop out of the program — or drop out of college altogether. Often, their departure from the program has less to do with their potential talent as engineers than with the socio-economic opportunities that opposed them even before their arrival.

Friess aims to change that by providing these students with the support they need. He received $749,999 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a project called Building Bridges for Engineering Students (BBEST) that supports talented, low-income engineering students.

“This program provides a unique opportunity to support these talented students from some of Maine’s poorest counties. The goal is not only to provide students with the support needed to stay in college, but also to educate high school students about the need to consider college. We want to build bridges between UMaine and the K-12 system that will bring a college education within reach of students who otherwise might not consider it,” says Friess.

BBEST recruits and supports students from four of Maine’s poorest rural counties—Aroostook, Washington, Oxford, and Piscataquis—which have both high poverty rates and low College of Engineering student enrollment rates. The program will award scholarships to 23 students over the six years of the program while providing institutional support in the form of cohort building, faculty and staff mentoring, professional support, and other services to the university scale. For example, Scholars in the program will be assigned a Scholars Success Coordinator who will be their main point of contact, attend monthly workshops to connect with other students in the program, and receive help preparing resumes. , professional presentations and interview techniques for career fairs.

“A wealth of research demonstrates that while financial support is fundamental for students to have access to university, creating an inclusive and supportive environment is essential for student perseverance and success during their college studies. BBEST aims to address both of these issues by awarding scholarships and creating the corresponding support network for low-income students with high academic potential,” says Friess.

The program is partly inspired by the success of programs such as the E. James and Eileen Ferland Engineering Excellence Scholarship Fund, which was launched in the fall of 2012 to recruit students from Skowhegan High School in Somerset County, one of the poorest in Maine. Since its launch, student enrollment in Somerset County has increased by 250%. About 50% of the 36 scholarship recipients obtained their engineering degree in 4 years and are now employed in the field.

The project will be evaluated through end-of-year surveys, focus group interviews, and a final evaluation report at the end of the six-year program. The data collected annually will help improve the program, assess the success of the project and disseminate lessons learned.

The award begins Feb. 15, 2023. Friess hopes her program will allow more College of Engineering graduates to join the Maine workforce.

“This program will inspire and support talented engineering students to enter, persist, and graduate from UMaine. This will directly support UMS TRANSFORMS’ goals to strengthen Maine’s workforce and economy by increasing the number of UMaine graduate engineers,” Friess said.

About the University of Maine: The University of Maine, founded in Orono in 1865, is the state’s land, maritime, and space grant university, with a regional campus at the University of Maine at Machias. UMaine is located on Marsh Island in the homeland of the Penobscot Nation. UMaine Machias is located in the homeland of the Passamaquoddy Nation. As Maine’s flagship public university, UMaine has a statewide mission of education, research and economic development, and community service. UMaine is the state’s public research university and a leading Carnegie R1 research institution. It attracts students from all 50 states and 81 countries. UMaine currently enrolls 11,989 undergraduate and graduate students, and UMaine Machias enrolls 747 undergraduate students. Our students have the opportunity to engage in groundbreaking research with world-class scholars. UMaine offers more than 100 degree programs through which students can earn a master’s, doctoral, or professional science master’s degree, as well as graduate certificates. UMaine Machias offers 18 degree programs. The university promotes environmental stewardship, with substantial campus-wide efforts to save energy, recycle, and meet green building standards in new construction. For more information about UMaine and UMaine Machias, visit and