Contest sparks inspiring speeches from engineering students

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At the beginning of each semester, eight engineering students face a crowded auditorium and a panel of three judges to present their solutions to a societal problem. And they do it without note cards, bulleted lists or a prompt, armed only with their intellect and weeks of preparation.

This is the Leonhard Center Speaking Contest, a bi-annual event held to inspire speaking skills in young engineers.

The rules are simple -- come up with an engineering solution to a societal issue.

Contest creator and engineering professor Michael Alley said the judges -- one faculty member, one graduate student and one alum -- evaluate the talks on how much the audience understands about the topic, how much the audience remembers and how much the audience believes in the idea.

The magnitude of the problem and effectiveness of the solution also play a hand.

This year, students tackled problems such as dangerous bacteria in food, methane waste from landfills, antiquated cochlear implant technology and robotic-assisted surgery when they presented in front of their peers and judges on Feb. 4.

While all eight contestants presented thoughtful and engaging speeches, senior Kristina Gans stood out from the pack, taking first place with her proposal for safer food packaging.

“”It was such a big surprise to win,” Gans said. “All the preparation really paid off. And the CAS department was such a big help.”

Alley was pleased with all eight presentations, including sophomore Nicole Gallegor’s second place win and People’s Choice winners Ryan Troy and Bryce Connelly.

“These students really set the bar,” Alley said.

Despite the notable prestige that comes with winning or even competing in the speaking contest, Alley said the event is relatively new. This semester’s contest marked the fifth contest since the inaugural finals in January 2013. The first finalists were CAS 100 engineering students in the fall of 2012. In a contest final, the competing students will have spent the semester before in CAS 100 for Engineers preparing their presentations. Toward the end of the semester, each section of the class nominates two or three of its students to compete in the semifinals, which serves to narrow down the field to the eight who would compete in the final competition the next semester.

This pattern of selecting finalists from the preceding semester of CAS 100 has continued since the origin of the contest. That way, each new class of CAS 100 engineering students attends the final contest, allowing them to see what they can aspire to.

“The finalists serve as models for the new semester of students,” Alley said.

The idea for the contest, Alley explained, was in response to The New York Times-sponsored Civic Engagement Public Speaking Contest. “Because of the judges of that contest did not appreciate the technical talks of our engineering students,” Alley said, “we created our own contest.”

Alley said his Utree (Undergraduate Teaching and Research Experiences in Engineering) students have worked to make this contest a success, with more than 300 students attending this year’s event.

“My vision is to have a national contest,” Alley said. “And I’d like to have the first one here at Penn State.”

This year’s contestants were:

First place: Kristina Gans – senior, biological engineering

Second place: Nicole Gallegor – sophomore, mechanical engineering

People’s Choice:

            Ryan Troy – sophomore, chemical engineering

            Bryce Connelly – sophomore, aerospace engineering

Other contestants:

            Sarah Markel – sophomore, chemical engineering

            Stephanie Howard – sophomore, chemical engineering

            Brianna Haglan – sophomore, chemical engineering

            Mikhala Stevens – sophomore, industrial engineering

Visit to view past finalist speeches.

Last Updated February 11, 2015