Jun 23, 2023

Penn State Berks engineering students get a jump start from summer program

For incoming Penn State Berks student Alexander Maldonado, the chance to get a leg up on the path to a job in engineering was too good to refuse.

Maldonado was one of 19 first-year students selected to participate in Penn State Berks’ Engineering Ahead initiative, a free, four-week summer bridge program aimed at increasing retention rates among a diverse group of engineering students.

“To me this program is an opportunity to explore what engineering is and to get to know other students like me who are coming into their first year of college,” Maldonado said in a press release. “Engineering Ahead gave me a chance to better myself both academically and socially.”

This year’s program ran from June 25 to July 21.

Students selected for the program live on campus during that time and participate in a suite of activities, including preparatory math “boot camps,” alumni presentations and networking opportunities, lab activities, tours in professional settings, and engineering-focused volunteer activities.

The program is also offered at Penn State Abington and University Park.

Penn State Berks’ version of the program was developed and first implemented eight years ago by Ryan Hassler, professor of mathematics at the college.

“Engineering has one of the highest degrees of students transferring out of it,” Hassler said. “Really, the reason is usually they can’t hack the math that first semester.”

Students entering STEM fields are a minority among the college population: Hassler said only 18% of students choose STEM majors.

Hassler said his goal when first developing the program was to foster success among traditionally underrepresented engineering students by encouraging them to think abstractly about math and how it could be applied in real-world scenarios.

Today’s current program is more holistic than the earlier versions, according to Hassler, with a focus split between introducing students to the rigors of college level math and providing opportunities to observe, learn about, and utilize engineering in professional settings.

To accomplish that, this year’s program involved tours of four local engineering facilities: Brentwood Industries, Reading; Seakeeper Inc. in Leesport; Carpenter Technology Corp. in Reading and American Crane and Equipment Corp. in Douglassville.

Students also visited the Berks LaunchBox in Reading, and University Park.

Hassler said the shadowing opportunities in local engineering settings are designed to help students secure an internship by the followings summer.

“My goal for the students is that every single one of them at the end of their first year has something that they are going to be engaging in for their professional future, whether that’s an undergraduate research experience or an internship,” Hassler said.

In addition, students had an early opportunity to meet and speak with past Engineering Ahead participants who are currently studying at Penn State Berks: Hassler said four current engineering students returned as program assistants and mentors.

Tyler Albert, a sophomore and aerospace major from Sinking Spring, said being a mentor was an experience he’d never forget.

“I was able to look back at myself a year ago and show the incoming students all the things I wish I was shown throughout my first year,” Albert said in a press release. “It was rewarding to see the student’s work become that of a successful college student in less than four weeks, which is something that I believe has taken longer to realize for those who do not go through this program.”

Albert said students participating in the program benefit from getting a realistic taste of what the upcoming semester will be like.

That taste involves no shortage of coursework: students daily schedules are filled with boot camps and tutoring sessions in pre-calculus, problem-solving exercises, as well as lessons on the scientific method, technology integration.

In addition to Hassler and other Penn State Berks faculty who administer the program, Engineering Ahead also involves presentations from prominent Penn State engineering alumni, including Melissa Daniels Foster, retired chief engineer with ExxonMobil, and John Weidenhammer, president of Weidenhammer Systems.

Students also got a chance to hear from former Engineering Ahead students who have graduated and are now working in the field, including Morgan Schwartz, optical engineer at L3Harris; Gabriela Gonzalez Magana, software engineer at Lockheed Martin; Bryant Warmate, lead cathode subsystem engineer and fuel cell systems engineer at General Motors; Whitney Imoh, senior business analyst with Accenture; and Nathan Bonslaver, founder of CarToCamp.

“(The program) really creates a network that’s not just a peer network, but a professional network for students,” Hassler said.

Other program activities this year involved engineering-focused volunteer activities, such as trail maintenance projects with Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center, working with Reading fifth through seventh graders to build and race solar-powered cars, and an initiative with Berks Nature to design a playscape for Opportunity House in Reading.

Hassler said a core benefit of the program is making students feel truly connected to the engineering field.

“Because of the way we present the mathematics, the mentoring, the activities they are doing, (students) understand and view themselves as engineers,” Hassler said.

Any engineering student can apply to participate in Engineering Ahead, though priority is given to traditionally underrepresented students, Hassler noted.

The program is free to students, and is funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as Bosch Rexroth, the Penn State Equal Opportunity Planning Commission, the Harold A. Pfreimer Engineering Outreach and Recruitment Endowment, and the Penn State Berks Leveraging Innovation and Optimizing Nurturing STEM Scholars Program, along with numerous alumni and local philanthropic donations.

Hassler noted that some former Engineering Ahead students have contributed financially to the program.

“When I was 25, I couldn’t imagine throwing a couple thousand dollars back to my college,” Hassler said. “(The program alumni) know how valuable it was to help them get a good start.”

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