Skip to Main Content

“Is toothpaste a liquid or a solid,” was the question that chemical engineering professor Joanne Beckwith posed to a group of third, fourth, and fifth graders from Woolslair Elementary in Lawrenceville when they visited campus in April. After some arguments in favor of each, one boy boldly declared it was both because it takes the shape of the tube like a liquid but holds its shape like a solid when squeezed onto a toothbrush.

His response, which was met with cheers, was the kind of moment that outreach programs in the College of Engineering often create.

Rita Canton, who coordinated the student visit, was hired in January as the director of engineering outreach. She knows just how potent such moments can be and she believes in their ability to change students’ lives because it was a Carnegie Mellon outreach program that changed hers.

A groupshot of nine people all wearing CMU gear

Front Row: Lillian Dukes (BS ECE ’83), Rita Canton (BS ECE ’83), Natalie McNeal (ECE) , Karen Young (CS). Back Row: Winner Laws (BS Math ’84 = MCS), Marge Britt (CS), Michele Chambliss (BS ECE ’83), Dean Bill Sanders, Judith Anderson (BS MechE ’83),

As a high school junior in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1978, she met representatives from Carnegie Mellon University at a local college fair, who told her and a friend about the Carnegie Mellon Action Project. The program, known as CMAP, aimed to increase the university’s recruitment and retention of Black students.

The CMAP program became the CMARC (Carnegie Mellon Resource Advising Center) and in 2017, the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion opened to support not only students of color and first-generation college students, but also low-income, LGBTQIA students, women—any individuals who have experienced underrepresentation and systemic inequality.

Canton attended a five-week on-campus experience the summer before her senior year and came back the following summer as part of the program for students who had been admitted to Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering.

“I would not have been so well prepared to begin my engineering studies without the CMAP program,” said Canton who said that even though she had been valedictorian at her high school, she oftentimes felt like she was a step behind the more academically prepared students she encountered at CMU.

I would not have been so well prepared to begin my engineering studies without the CMAP program.

Rita Canton, Director of Engineering Outreach, College of Engineering

“It was fantastic! The Carnegie Mellon Action Project changed my life,” said Canton.

After earning her degree in electrical engineering, she worked for two years at the Kearfott Corporation, a division of the Singer Business Corporation in New Jersey, before returning to Pittsburgh, where she then spent eight years working as an electrical engineer with Westinghouse Electric Corporation as an instrumentation and controls engineer.

Canton often volunteered for the company’s Adopt a School program, where she would tutor Black students. It was there that she discovered how much she loved teaching and went back to school for her teaching certification in secondary math. After teaching math and later religion, Canton went on to become a school principal at several Pittsburgh-area schools: Holy Rosary Elementary in Homewood; Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg, which she is proud to have co-founded; and Vincentian Academy in the North Hills.

Her new role as director of engineering outreach brings her career full circle.

Canton is grateful that she can devote her full-time efforts to the mission, and she looks forward to expanding outreach programs for the college. She spent her first few months on the job getting familiar with the many successful outreach programs that are already being run by individual departments, as well as the existing college-level programs that she will now be responsible for.

I want to be sure that we are offering a good mix of opportunities and resources for local students.

Rita Canton, Director of Engineering Outreach, College of Engineering

“I want to be sure that we are offering a good mix of opportunities and resources for our local students,” said Canton.

She also wants to better understand the needs within the community to ensure that Carnegie Mellon’s programs are reaching students beyond those who happen to be close to campus or those who have the resources to attend on-campus programs. In addition to working with local schools, she is eager to learn more about community organizations, who she believes will also make good partners for her programs.

She intends to grow the Engineering Ambassadors Network, a group of CMU engineering students who are trained to deliver outreach programs to local schools and community groups.

Two students in their graduation garb

Rita Canton and Karen Chapman Rozier (BS ECE 1984, MS TPR 1991) at their Carnegie Mellon University graduation.

“By taking our students and programs out to the community, we can expand our reach,” says Canton, who says she is thrilled with the level of enthusiasm and commitment she has seen from the CMU student volunteers.

But Canton is not waiting for a formal plan to dive into the work. She is already exploring other ways to expand outreach.

She and several student ambassadors recently visited Roosevelt Elementary; a preK-5 school in Carrick. Even though the school is less than six miles away from the CMU campus, most of the youngsters there had not heard of Carnegie Mellon. Canton also believes that teachers there may never have thought to reach out to Carnegie Mellon about engineering programs, so being more proactive in making local schools and community groups aware of the programs she and her team of student volunteers can offer will be important.

She wants to increase outreach in schools and community groups by visiting more of them and visiting more often by developing a series of visits instead of showing up just one time.

And while most of the current on-campus programs have included students from multiple area schools, she wants to try bringing larger groups from the same school to campus.

Two black elementary school girls working on a science project

Students from Woolslair Elemetary conduct an experiment in Chemical Engineering professor Joanne Beckwith’s laboratory.


The Woolslair students, who came to campus recently, were bused to campus with their NSBE, Jr. group, which is an elementary school chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The field trip logistics are a bit more complicated, but hosting larger groups from one school will expose more students to CMU, particularly those from underrepresented communities.

In April, Canton celebrated her 40th class reunion with a group of friends who were 1983 graduates. Canton said they were excited for her, as well as a little jealous of her new opportunity to lead outreach for the college. They were also eager to support her programs and the CMU students she will be working with.

“Like me, they really understand the benefit of outreach programs,” said Canton who is relishing this opportunity because as she likes to say, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”