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Engineering Ahead Bridges Gap for Incoming Students at Penn State Berks

by Penn State Berks

Engineering Ahead Bridges Gap for Incoming Students at Penn State Berks

“The Engineering Ahead program has been a serious jumpstart into the engineering pathway at Penn State,” states Kyle Haddock, a first-year student from Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, who plans to major in mechanical engineering.I am very happy with my choice to join and I believe the program will continue to help me throughout my years in the industry.”

Penn State Berks is helping a future generation of engineering students to succeed through the college’s Engineering Ahead Program. The goal of the five-week summer “bridge” program, which ran from June 28–July 30, 2021 and was delivered in a hybrid format, is to increase retention rates among a diverse group of engineering students by enhancing academic preparedness.

Dr. Ryan Hassler, Engineering Ahead coordinator and associate teaching professor of mathematics at Penn State Berks, explains the value of the program. “Engineering jobs are in very high demand, however there are not enough graduates to fill the need. The problem is two-fold: recruitment and retention. Only 1 to 2.5% of secondary students are interested in STEM subjects. Of the 60% of students who earn an engineering degree, only 12% are from underrepresented populations.”

Students from a variety of academic backgrounds come from several states, including Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Georgia, to participate in the free program. This year’s 19-student cohort plans to major in various disciplines, including aerospace, architectural, chemical, civil, computer engineering, computer science, electro-mechanical and mechanical engineering.

Daily schedules include intensive math “boot camps” focused on pre-calculus, problem-solving exercises, facilitated tutoring sessions, faculty and external speaker presentations on a variety of topics, and discussion of the course textbook, Atomic Habits by James Clear. The program also covers such subjects as the scientific method, technology and career exploration.

Robyn Redcay of Denver, Pennsylvania stated, “This program has helped me feel far more confident about my abilities as a student. Going into college after this pandemic was starting to feel very daunting. I was extremely scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to actually learn and earn my degree. But this program has not only strengthened my learning skills but taught me what I need to do about the things I am lacking in.”

Johanna Brenord of Brooklyn, New York added, “Being a part of this program has made me a better person. They have turned me into both a very punctual and very dedicated student. I joined this program in hopes of becoming just that. They have completely changed me as a student and I am forever thankful for that.”

In addition to Hassler, the Engineering Ahead Program team includes Dawn Pfeifer Reitz, assistant teaching professor of communication arts and sciences, and Sonia Delaquito, coordinator of the college’s learning center. In addition, more than 30 Penn State Berks faculty, staff and alumni supported this year’s program by donating their time and expertise through presentations and talks.

Two former participants have returned this year as program assistants: Nicolas Cassa, a senior electrical engineering major, and Jacob Vanisko, a junior mechanical engineering major. They were joined by student mentors Nic Molignoni, sophomore architectural engineering major; Oliver De Leon Guzman, sophomore computer science major, and Safitaj Sindhar, junior biology major.

When asked why he returned to the program as an assistant, Cassa explains, “When I graduated high school, I thought I was prepared for anything college could throw at me. Then I got a letter from Dr. Hassler advertising the Engineering Ahead Program and it seemed like a good way to spend my summer so I applied for a spot in the program. It opened my eyes to how much I did not know and what I still needed to do before my first semester, and that is why I came back to it. I wanted to help incoming Penn State students have the best experience possible in their first year.

Without Engineering Ahead, my Penn State career would have been a much less enjoyable experience.”

For Nic Molignoni, the opportunity to work as a mentor was exciting. “I chose to come back as a mentor because last year the program really helped me adjust to college and mentoring was an opportunity for me to grow as a student and also welcome aspiring Engineering students into the Penn State community.”

The program helps participants to prepare for the rigors of math courses while giving them an opportunity to meet fellow engineering students; attend workshops on study skills, time management, and career planning; and get to know the campus and the professors. In addition, they work with a peer mentor––an upperclass engineering or science major.

Students also had an opportunity to attended in-person lab presentations on campus and took a field trip to Bosch Rexroth Corporation in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to tour their facilities. Bosch has been a supporter of the Engineering Ahead program for several years.

They also heard presentations from prominent Penn State engineering alumni such as Melissa Daniels Foster, retired chief engineer for ExxonMobil Chemical; Hugh Connett retired president of Chevron Global Gas; and Robert Miller, systems engineer with the U.S. Army CCDC Armaments Center.

Perhaps even more impactful, the students heard from Berks engineering alumni who were part of prior Engineering Ahead cohorts and are currently working in their field, including Morgan Schwartz, Optical Engineer L3Harris; Roger Salguero, application engineer at Eurotherm; Gabriela Gonzalez Magana, software engineer at Lockheed Martin; Nicholas Ficca, micromanufacturing engineer at Precision Microfab; Bryant Warmate,  lead cathode subsystem engineer and fuel cell systems engineer at General Motors; and Whitney Imoh, senior business analyst with Accenture.

In addition, Engineering Ahead also provides a support system through a first-year seminar where students continue their transition to college as a group, a second semester continuing education course, and finally, access to the Jump Start Sophomore Bridge Program at University Park campus.

It wasn’t all work and no play for the Engineering Ahead students. They had opportunities to attend a FIghtin’ Phils game and go bowling. They also worked on two community service projects: designing and building a platform for Nolde Forrest’s outdoor educational space and working with the Youth Volunteer Corp (VOICE UP) of Reading to help create an outdoor educational space at Southwest Middle School in Reading.

The Engineering Ahead Program at Penn State Berks is the result of a grant that University Park submitted titled “Sustainable Bridges from Campus to Campus: Retention Models for Transitioning Engineering Students,” funded by the National Science Foundation.

Penn State Berks was one of four campuses to receive NSF funding for the summer bridge program, which began in 2016. The grant is a collaborative effort between the Penn State College of Engineering at University Park and three Penn State campuses: Abington, Altoona, and Berks. Among the Penn State campuses, these three have the largest populations of racially underrepresented engineering students (45 percent of the total). Additional funding has been provided by industry sponsors including ArcelorMittal, Boeing and Bosch Rexroth.

“It has been a true delight to work with this year’s Engineering Ahead scholars and to help them begin their difficult transition from high school to college learning,” comments Hassler. “They are to be commended for the sacrifices they have made this summer to set themselves on a path of success. After running last year’s program completely in remote format, being able to have the students in person and on campus for one of the five weeks this year was very rewarding and brought a sense of normality back to our campus. In times of uncertainty and unrest in our society, I am encouraged by the commitment that these incoming Penn State Berks students have shown to becoming future engineers tasked with solving some of our world’s greatest problems.”

For more information about the Engineering Ahead Program at Penn State Berks, contact Hassler at 610-396-6034 or via email at [email protected].