With Prototype for Success, UChicago Prepares Students Under-Represented in STEM to be the Tech Leaders of the Future

Antonio Castano perked up at the first discussion question posed to the inaugural cohort of Prototype for Success, a new program designed to prepare University of Chicago undergraduates for careers as leaders in emerging tech.

“Will electric vehicles take over the car market in the next 10 years?” Matt Hebron, program director for careers in engineering in the University’s Office of Career Advancement, asked the three dozen freshmen gathered for the program kickoff in late January.

The students, seated at tables in Chicago Booth’s Harper Center, conferred in small groups, then Castano took the mic to explain why he thinks not.

“Even though in some urban areas we have seen that superchargers can be viable with the grids they have built up, in terms of the shipping industry throughout the U.S. interstate system it is going to be pretty difficult to set up infrastructure over thousands of miles in the next 10 years that can support mass EV commercialization,” said Castano, a 19-year-old freshman from Long Island who plans to study molecular engineering.

Castano, who in his youth has thought a lot about renewable energy solutions, exudes the kind of ambition the University hopes to nourish with Prototype for Success, a three-year program that gives early and continued support to promising students aspiring to entrepreneurial or leadership positions in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The competitive program is open to all incoming freshmen, and highly encourages applications from Black, Hispanic, and female students, who are under-represented in high-growth, highly remunerated STEM fields. Of the 36 students in the inaugural cohort — selected from more than 120 applicants — more than half are women and three-quarters are either Black, Hispanic, or Odyssey Scholars receiving need-based scholarships.

UChicago freshman Corrie Barnes offers her perspective at the kickoff event for Prototype for Success.

“It is critical that we advance the STEM workforce, and that we do so in an inclusive manner so that we can capture the brightest minds and diverse perspectives to drive breakthrough innovations,” said Juan de Pablo, executive vice president for science, innovation, national laboratories, and global initiatives at the University of Chicago, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

“By offering early and continued support to promising students, we hope to create a pipeline of diverse STEM talent that will be exceptionally well prepared for future leadership roles, whether as entrepreneurs or with established organizations,” he said.

Developing a STEM workforce representative of the nation’s talent pool is important for maintaining the U.S.’s global competitiveness in science and engineering, the National Science Foundation has said. There are particularly large gains to be made at higher-skill levels and in certain fields.

Among the STEM workforce with a bachelor’s degree, only 7% are Black and 8% are Hispanic, while the U.S. population is 12% Black and 19% Hispanic, according to the National Science Foundation’s State of the U.S. Science and Engineering. Women make up about 44% of the STEM workforce with a bachelor’s degree, but just 26% of computer and mathematical scientists and 16% of engineers.

Prototype for Success leverages UChicago’s world-class strengths in scientific research and entrepreneurial education to prepare students, including individuals from groups under-represented in STEM, to compete for top roles. The extracurricular program offers specialized workshops, internship experiences, and a peer group that serves as a support system and built-in network upon graduation.

UChicago freshman Antonio Castano

Castano said he was eager to be part of the program as soon as he received the email inviting him to apply shortly after his acceptance into UChicago. Entrepreneurial since grade school, Castano said he is excited to learn business strategies, engage with peers who challenge his thinking, and apply his curious mind to developing practicable innovations.

“It is easy to say we need to do something,” Castano said. “This makes it more accessible.”

Prototype for Success is a partnership between Career Advancement, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. It draws on the resources of the Chicago Booth School of Business, ranked the nation’s top business school.

“Chicago Booth offers tremendous intellectual depth in entrepreneurship, and students in Prototype for Success will benefit from the collective expertise developed by our faculty over decades of research,” said Dan Sachs, executive director of education and programs at the Polsky Center.

The program was conceived by de Pablo and Jim Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and student advancement and dean of college admissions and financial aid, in close partnership with Paul Nealey, theBrady W. Dougan Professor of Molecular Engineering at PME and vice dean for education and outreach.

“It is critically important that we educate diverse leaders for an increasingly technological society,” Nealey said. “Engineering, business and entrepreneurship are an incredibly powerful partnership that together can create real impact. The Prototype for Success Program works to develop strong interdisciplinary thinkers that enter the workforce ready to make a difference.”

Rheaply CEO Garry Cooper talks with students at the start of the Prototype for Success kickoff

Students in the first cohort were selected based in part on demonstrated interest in emerging technologies. Some spent high school leading robotics teams or conducting research on solar energy. Approximately two thirds indicated plans to study molecular engineering at UChicago. The other third plans to major in a variety of STEM disciplines.

“Our Prototype for Success students are an exceptional group of young scholars,” said Meredith Daw, associate vice president and executive director of UChicago’s Office of Career Advancement. “As we reviewed their applications, they impressed us with their entrepreneurial potential, interdisciplinary thinking, persuasive communication skills, and passion for emerging technology.

“Our goal is to give them the training, experience, and expert advice they need to turn their ideas into scientific discoveries, commercial ventures, and social impact,” she continued. “We’re excited to help our students prepare for ‘careers of the future’ with our partners at the Polsky Center and the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.”

The program begins in the winter quarter of students’ freshman year with seminars on intellectual property and other entrepreneurship fundamentals. It progresses through the second and third years with experiential opportunities, R and CAD workshops, professional development programming, and a capstone project.

Garry Cooper

During the summers after their freshman and sophomore years, students are offered funded internship experiences with employers working at the intersection of science and entrepreneurship. The program also invites STEM entrepreneurs and other speakers from under-represented backgrounds to share their success stories.

“It is all about creating a rich and immersive way for students to learn practical entrepreneurial skills who don’t see heroes who look like them in the field,” Sachs said.

The keynote speaker at the kickoff event was Garry Cooper, cofounder and CEO of Rheaply, a resource-sharing platform that helps companies limit waste and reuse at scale. Cooper described his journey from neuroscience postdoc to founder and urged students to “build something you would use.” He also provided his email address and encouraged students to reach out with their ideas, promising to respond within 24 hours and make connections to funders he knows.

The students in the first cohort came to Prototype for Success with varied interests.

Freshman Corrie Barnes, 18, wants to research how quantum technology can be used to address climate change.

Emmett Reid

Barnes, who graduated from Whitney Young High School in Chicago, became interested in quantum thanks to a quantum computing class she took at UChicago last summer, and connected that with work she was doing with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate justice initiative. The Prototype program presents an opportunity to learn how to set up a business if that ends up being her path to finding better energy resources, she said.

Emmett Reid, 19, is interested in research and development to find an engineering solution to disease, including through immunology and genetics. Reid, of Springfield, Mo., is curious about what it would take to start his own company, and said applying to Prototype for Success was a no-brainer.

“I really like problem solving and want to do something meaningful and impactful,” Reid said. “I’m interested in everything the program offers.”

Article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. A longtime journalist, Alexia most recently was a business reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Reach Alexia via email or on Twitter @alexiaer.

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