Internship has New Kensington student laser-focused on engineering

Tyler Leatherwood is in his second year working on laser weapons at Penn State’s Electro-Optics Center (EOC). He’ll be working at the center for at least two more years as he helps design, test and build components for the high-powered defense systems used by the United States military. By the way, he is a full-time sophomore in the engineering program at Penn State New Kensington.

Last year, as a freshman, Leatherwood was selected as the charter member of a new campus program, GREAT (Growing Regional Engineering through Academics and Training). A collaboration of the New Kensington campus, Electro-Optics Center and industries in the region, GREAT establishes internships at local companies for engineering students. Whereas most internships are geared to juniors and seniors, GREAT interns can begin as soon as their first year in college.

“I never thought I would be getting the hands-on training like I am, learning the ins and outs of laser weapons systems and how they operate,” said Leatherwood, an electro-mechanical engineering technology major. “I could not ask for better mentors as they challenge me with new tasks every day, but also support me as I learn. It has helped me financially as well.”

Leatherwood’s internship is year round -- part-time, 10 hours per week, during the fall and spring semesters, and full-time, 40 hours, during the summer. He is paid $12 an hour and performs a variety of tasks. His work schedule is based around his class schedule.

“They are very flexible and understanding with my educational needs,” said Leatherwood, a 2011 graduate of Kiski Area High School. “I show up and help anyone that needs assistance. I helped build a circuit that can record multiple temperatures at the same time that will be used on a big Navy project.”

The Electro-Optics Center was established in 1999 under a cooperative agreement with the Office of Naval Research. Managed by Penn State, the Freeport-based company serves as a national resource to advance electro-optics and related technologies by partnering with government and commercial customers for the primary benefit of the defense of the country.

For selection into the GREAT program, qualified engineering majors go through a competitive interview process with campus faculty and the business partners. Promising students are awarded four-year paid internships that provide opportunities to develop professional skills and gain workplace experience.

"Unlike other internships that are often sporadic and unaccompanied by enrichment, the GREAT program provides four years of a consistent, challenging work environment, coupled with constant mentoring in the workplace and extra classroom seminars instructed by professionals," said Bill Kiser, senior director of the Penn State Electro-Optics Center.

GREAT students have access to professional development seminars that are held at various times each semester. Leatherwood views the internship as a precursor to his foray two years hence into the workforce.

“The internship is an advantage in getting an early start on competition,” said Leatherwood, a resident of Apollo. “I am getting a feel for industry while building a resume and building experience.

GREAT proved to be the draw for Leatherwood to enroll at Penn State New Kensington. Originally, he had set his sights on an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. However, a serendipitous encounter with a campus marketing piece whetted his risk-taking appetite. The lure of a four-year paid internship proved stronger than the lure of the seas.

“I happened to see a brochure for the GREAT program on my kitchen table, and right then I knew I wanted to take a chance to earn the internship,” said Leatherwood, an officer of the Engineering Club, a student organization on campus. “I committed to Penn State New Kensington, and sure enough I got the job at the EOC.

The quality of the electro-mechanical engineering technology program was not lost on Leatherwood. Graduates of the program learn the skills necessary to apply current methods and technology to the development, design, operation and management of electro-mechanical systems. Penn State is recognized nationally as a leader in engineering technology.

“Penn State New Kensington is a very good engineering school,” said Leatherwood, who uses a combination of scholarships, grants and loans to pay for his education. “All the professors I have had are amazing.”

During the summer months, the 40-hour work week allows him a certain degree of creativity and fun. In addition to working in the Laser Weapons division, Leatherwood helps instruct an electro-optics camp and two robotics camps.

“I recently built a robot out of NXT Legos that solves Rubik’s cube,” Leatherwood said. “It was a demonstration robot for a camp.”

Since he arrived on campus, creativity has been the hallmark of Leatherwood’s collegiate career. As a part of a class project, he set a campus record by transmitting sound via light at a distance of a quarter of a mile. The previous record was an eighth of a mile. His internship played a pivotal role in his accomplishment.

“I actually asked some of my mentors at work how I could improve my original 100 feet distance, and they gave me ideas to use telescopes,” Leatherwood said. “I used the optics of two telescopes to manipulate the light to give me a better signal on the receiver end. So my job actually helped with school which was pretty cool.”
A year ago, he was part of a team of student engineering majors at the campus that took up a challenge from his mentors, a team of professional engineers at the EOC. Each side built a trebuchet, a type of catapult, for a Cantaloupe Chunkin contest. After seven hurls, the EOC squad claimed the trophy by “lobbin the 'loupe’ a bit farther than the students.

“The trebuchet project was a blast, and we competed against the company I work for, which made the contest quite interesting,” Leatherwood said. “EOC ended up taking home the gold, but the overall purpose of working together to build relationships, communication and time management skills, and to enhance project design experience was accomplished.”

Leatherwood expects to earn his bachelor’s degree in 2015. Whether his career continues with the EOC or another engineering firm, he is ready for the challenges that await.

“I get a job somewhere and work my way up the ladder,” he said. “The internship will hopefully open up a lot of opportunities for me.”

For more about the GREAT Program, visit


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Last Updated February 04, 2013