Electrical-engineering student
shares the wealth © April 11, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Kate McClean, 2008 valedictorian and Vermont student engineer of the year.

photo by Jay Ericson Kate McClean, 2008 valedictorian and Vermont student engineer of the year.

As she prepares to complete her degree in electrical engineering, class of 2008 valedictorian Kate McLean is very happy with the options ahead of her. She could pursue an advanced degree and perhaps prepare for an academic career. Or she could go to work in private industry, where an opportunity at IBM already awaits her.

“[The faculty] like to tell us that, as a whole, engineering is a very versatile degree,” says the Orrington, Maine, native, who has been named a University Scholar at Norwich University (to earn a place on this list, students must maintain a 4.0 cumulative grade point average).

Disciplined and academically quick, McLean relished her challenging major because “not only do you get a broad base of physical science and chemistry, you also get mathematics and analytical problem solving,” she says. That particular fusion of disciplines was attractive to someone who has long excelled at mathematics and whose favorite toy when she was a child was a set of Lincoln Logs.

“I like it when things click,” McLean says. “I like it when those little epiphanies happen and you think, ‘Oh, that’s how that works.’”

Yet it’s not only her studiousness that distinguishes her among her peers, according to Associate Professor Stephen Fitzhugh, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department. What’s equally impressive, he says, is her willingness to “share the knowledge,” at Norwich and beyond.

On campus, McLean has been a certified peer tutor in the Norwich University Learning Support Center since her first year. “Whenever there are students who need help, you’ll find Kate in the midst of them,” Fitzhugh says. “And students who work with her get good grades. She is an outstanding tutor.”

Those characteristics carry over into the classroom, Fitzhugh says. “In class, all the other students want to work with her, because they learn by working around her. She’s a good influence.”

McLean has tutored Norwich students one-on-one in mathematics, electrical engineering and computer engineering. She is so passionate about the work, in fact, that what she considers most frustrating about tutoring is not having enough time to spend with her students.

It’s a level of commitment McLean believes Norwich faculty have modeled for her. “I’ve gone in to talk with them on Sunday afternoons, when they’re in their offices, grading papers,” McLean says.  “I’ve asked about labs, homework, applying for internships. No matter what they were doing, they never turned me away.”

I like it when those little epiphanies happen and you think, ‘Oh, that’s how that works.

~Kate McClean

In turn, McLean has labored to be an example for youngsters off campus as well as on it. The National Academies have documented the gradual decline in the number of women in the sciences and engineering since the 1980s. In 2007, just 14 percent of electrical engineering majors were women, according to a National Science Foundation study.

Many organizations are trying to reverse these trends through outreach to girls in elementary and middle school. Through her involvement with the Norwich chapter of the Society for Women Engineers (SWE), McLean has done her part, sharing her enthusiasm for math and science with local girls through SWE events.

Her example makes an impression on prospective engineering students because “she is very intelligent, conscientious, caring and helpful,” says Carol Stephens, associate professor of mechanical engineering and faculty advisor to SWE and Tau Beta Pi. “She takes control of situations and gets tasks done.”

After graduation, McLean will go to work at IBM, where she has been an intern in the Systems and Technology Group in Essex, Vt., since May 2007.

“I’m going into private industry for a couple of years to try and get my feet wet and get more of an idea of what’s out there before I go back to school,” McLean says. “I don’t want to go to grad school just for the sake of going to grad school. I’d like to go because there’s something I’m really interested in.”

That decision to break plenty of new ground is entirely characteristic of McLean, who says simply, “I like having a lot of avenues open to me.”