Engineering Ahead bridges gap for incoming students

Program celebrates seventh year at Penn State Berks

“This program has prepared me to think deeper, solve problems at a higher level and make connections with important people,” comments Tyler Albert of Sinking Spring, Pa. “These people have shown that they truly care about how I do as a student and as an individual.”

Penn State Berks is helping a future generation of engineering students to succeed through the college’s Engineering Ahead Program, which is now in its seventh year. The goal of the four-week summer “bridge” program, which ran from June 26 to July 22, 2022, is to increase retention rates among a diverse group of engineering students by enhancing academic preparedness and providing support.

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Ryan Hassler, Engineering Ahead coordinator and associate teaching professor of mathematics at Penn State Berks, explained 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.”

Photo courtesy of Penn State Berks.

Students from a variety of academic backgrounds come from the tri-state area (Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey) and beyond to apply for a seat in the program. This year’s 20-student cohort also included students from Delaware, Texas and Illinois. The students plan to major in various engineering disciplines, including aerospace, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer, electrical, electro-mechanical and mechanical.

Daily schedules include intensive math “boot camps” focused on pre-calculus, problem-solving exercises, the scientific method, technology, career exploration, tutoring sessions, faculty and external speaker presentations on a variety of topics, and discussion of the course textbook, Atomic Habits by James Clear. Students also participated in several lab activities with a focus on aerospace, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and chemistry.

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In addition to Hassler, the core 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. Alexa Wojciechowski, coordinator of placement and internships in Career Services, is also instrumental in the program. In total, more than 20 Penn State Berks faculty, staff and alumni supported this year’s program by donating their time and expertise through presentations and talks.

Four former Engineering Ahead participants returned this year as program assistants: Oliver De Leon Guzman, a computer science major who returned for a second year; Nicholas Beers, electro-mechanical engineering technology major; Katlyn Rivera, mechanical engineering major; and Octavio Orano, mechanical engineering major.

When asked why he returned to the program as an assistant, De Leon Guzman explains, “The most important thing for me as a mentor was being able to help carve a path for the Engineering Ahead students to walk as they complete their education. This is something that I didn’t have when I first started college, so I was happy that I got the opportunity to help guide the students to be successful.”

For Beers, the opportunity to work as a mentor was exciting. “All the experiences, opportunities and connections this program offers are priceless for the students. This program enabled students to tour so many amazing places to get an idea what it is like to be an engineer, while also pushing them out of their comfort zone with multiple hands-on projects that required teamwork and critical thinking. The support this program offers to students is also priceless. When everyone first walked into the residence halls on the first day, they were uncomfortable; on the last day, however, it felt like we were all a large family that had each other’s backs.”

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 peer mentors who are upperclass engineering majors.

Students also had an opportunity to attend in-person lab presentations on campus and took a field trips to tour four local industries: Bosch Rexroth Corporation in Bethlehem, Reading Bakery Systems in Robesonia, Carpenter Technology in Reading, and East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons. The students also visited the Berks LaunchBox in Reading and University Park campus.

Perhaps even more impactful, 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 at L3Harris; Roger Salguero, application engineer at Eurotherm; 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; Nathan Bonslaver, entrepreneur; and Zackary Scalyer, mathematical statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau.

Photo courtesy of Penn State Berks.

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 STEM Persistence seminar, 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 also worked on three community service projects: packing weekender bags for local schools with Helping Harvest Food Bank, working on engineering design projects with Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center, and mentoring a youth camp called Clean Energy Crusaders, which built and raced solar-powered cars, in cooperation with Youth Volunteer Corp (VOICE UP) of Reading. Penn State Berks engineering professors Kathleen Hauser and Dr. Marietta Scanlon, along with Thomas Nelson of Nelson Home and Garden Services, were instrumental with the planning and execution of these projects.

The Berks Engineering Ahead program received funding from Bosch Rexroth, Penn State Equal Opportunity Planning Commission funding, Harold A. Pfreimer Engineering Outreach and Recruitment Endowment, Penn State Berks Leveraging Innovation and Optimizing Nurturing (LION) STEM Scholars Program – a National Science Foundation Track 1 S-STEM Grant, along with numerous alumni and local philanthropic donations.

“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,” states Hassler. “They are to be commended for the sacrifices they have made this summer to set themselves on a path of success. My passion for helping students transition from high school to college is fueled by their thirst for knowledge and dedication to their academic potential. 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.”

Perhaps Engineering Ahead scholar Ryan Madhav from Houston, Texas summarizes his experience the best, “This program has meant nothing but the world to me because it provides me with so many opportunities to succeed. This program made me believe that I belong in the engineering field and that I would not be alone in my journey.”

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