Female automation students making their mark at Penn College

Published 02.11.2022

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During his 27 years teaching electronics at Pennsylvania College of Technology, Ken J. Kinley has experienced evolutions of curriculum, equipment and facilities. He hopes to add “student demographics” to the list.

Three female students in the early stages of studying robotics and automation at Penn College offer promise for that wish to be realized.

“I believe this is a first – having three female students enroll in robotics and automation about the same time,’’ said Kinley, assistant professor and department head. “I’m happy to see women branch out in nontraditional fields and do very well in the coursework, like these three young ladies.”

Three first-year female students are making their mark studying robotics and automation at Pennsylvania College of Technology. From left, are Angelica J. Parrocho, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., who resides in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania; Kayla M. Figuereo, of Edgewater Park, N.J.; and Ava A. Birotte, of Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Birotte and Figuereo are pursuing bachelor’s degrees in automation engineering technology: robotics and automation, and Parrocho is seeking an associate degree in electronics and computer engineering technology: robotics and automation emphasis.The stellar students are Ava A. Birotte, of Sunbury; Kayla M. Figuereo, of Edgewater Park, New Jersey; and Angelica J. Parrocho, a native of the Bronx, New York, who resides in Jersey Shore. Both Birotte and Figuereo are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in automation engineering technology: robotics and automation, and Parrocho is seeking an associate degree in electronics and computer engineering technology: robotics and automation emphasis.

Figuereo and Parrocho are in their second semesters after earning 4.0 GPAs last fall. Birotte is a semester ahead and has a 3.61 GPA.

“These students are among the best I have taught in terms of work ethic and engagement,” said Joseph M. Harner, instructor of electronics/automation and robotics. “They are not only interested in the subject matter, but they also have a strong desire to learn and excel.”

Their backgrounds and paths to Penn College differ, but Parrocho, Figuereo and Birotte all had an affinity for technology and family support of their inclination long before enrolling.

“I have always been interested in electronics and robots. Not only because they look cool but because there is so much to learn,” explained Parrocho, who graduated from Scranton High School. “We’ve been able to progress so much because of robotics and automation. I want to understand how that’s been possible and how far the technology can take us in the next five to 10 years.”

Printing and graphic design work as a student at Burlington County Institute of Technology in Westampton, New Jersey, led to Figuereo’s discovery of the field. “The machines always fascinated me. I wanted to know how they worked and how to fix them when they malfunctioned,” she recalled.

Learning she could mix her engineering interest with another passion hooked Birotte on electronics. “I realized I could combine my art hobby with robotics to maybe create cool things,” she said.

Birotte was the first of the three to tap into Penn College expertise. At SUN Area Technical Institute, she completed four electronics classes through Penn College Dual Enrollment, a program allowing high school students to earn free college credits. Straight A’s in those courses, and exposure to Penn College’s facilities convinced her to pursue the robotics and automation bachelor’s degree.

“My favorite classes are always the ones where we are hands-on with all the parts and circuits to understand how they work,” Birotte said.

Automation and robotics students receive extensive hands-on experience on industry-standard equipment, including programmable logic controller stations, robots with vision systems and conveyors.

The opportunity to work on such equipment in small class settings with experienced faculty also appealed to Parrocho and Figuereo, both of whom discovered the school at college fairs.

“I’m learning things that I didn’t know were possible, and I’m building things that I couldn’t build before. Penn College has helped me find something I’m really passionate about,” Figuereo said.

“It’s great that we get to put theories to work in the labs as we are learning them,” Parrocho added. “The small class sizes also allow us to get to know our professors, who are preparing us for what it will be like in industry.”

Industries with jobs rooted in science, technology, engineering and math need an influx of talent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be nearly 800,000 new STEM jobs by 2029, an increase of 8%, compared with 3.7% for all other occupations.

“We get contacted weekly by employers wanting our graduates,” Kinley said. “We do not have enough graduates to fill the high-paying positions available in automation/robotics. With more companies incorporating automation in their facilities, there will be an even bigger need fairly soon.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the median annual salary for STEM occupations is $89,780 and $40,020 for non-STEM jobs. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual pay for an automation engineer is $88,109.

Traditionally, women haven’t sought enriching STEM careers.

Nationwide, women represent only 29% of the STEM workforce and 15% of engineering professionals, according to the Department of Labor. At Penn College, they account for just 4.7% of all students enrolled in the five electronics and computer engineering technology majors. For Birotte, Parrocho and Figuereo, that reality hasn’t detracted from their Penn College experience.

Birotte said that she’s treated like “one of the guys.” Parrocho observed how friendly everyone has been. Figuereo described how she and her male counterparts often assist one another during labs.

Those accounts don’t surprise Harner. “It’s difficult not to respect capable students who are willing to offer assistance and explanations of the material,” he said. “I am most pleased to have such good students enrolled in the program, students who just happen to be young women.”

Figuereo agrees that she and her female classmates should be viewed as smart – rather than special – with their choice of majors.

“The program is absolutely amazing,” she said. “It’s a very interesting field. More women should consider robotics and automation as a potential career because we have just as much to bring to the table as men do.”

Harner’s experience as an engineer supports that sentiment.

“Nearly every woman I have worked with in industry with a STEM background has been exceptional,” he said. “If this is a field that a woman wishes to pursue, she can excel and be among the best. Angelica, Kayla and Ava exemplify this.”

For information on baccalaureate and associate degrees focused on electronics, automation and robotics, as well as other majors offered by the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

For information about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.