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

During his tenure, Wilhelm Friess, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine, has seen a pattern of talented first-generation, low-income engineering students leaving the program — or dropping out of college altogether. Often, their leaving the program has less to do with their potential talent as engineers than the socioeconomic odds that were stacked against them before they even arrived.

Friess aims to change that by providing these students with the support they need. He was awarded $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 presents a unique opportunity to support these talented students from some of Maine’s poorest counties. The aim is not only to provide students with the support needed to stay in college, but also to raise high school students’ awareness that they should consider college. We want to build bridges between UMaine and the K–12 system that will move a college education within reach for students who may otherwise not consider it,” Friess says.

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

“There is a wealth of research that demonstrates that while financial support is fundamental for students to have access to college, creating an inclusive and supportive environment is essential for student persistence and success while in college. BBEST aims to address both points by awarding scholarships and creating the corresponding support network for low-income students with high academic potential,” Friess says.

The program is modeled in part on the success of programs like the E. James and Eileen Ferland Engineering Excellence Scholarship Fund, which was launched in fall 2012 to recruit students from Skowhegan High School in Somerset County, one of the poorest in Maine. Since its initiation, student enrollment from Somerset County has increased 250%. Approximately 50% of the 36 scholars graduated in 4 years as engineers 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. Annually collected data will assist in program improvement, gauge project success and disseminate lessons learned.

The award begins Feb. 15, 2023. Friess hopes that his program will result in more successful graduates of the College of Engineering joining the workforce in Maine. 

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

Contact: Sam Schipani,