Engineering confidence: 'Build Night' offers hands-on making opportunities

January 28, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For most engineering students, machining, forming, grinding, welding, assembling and testing prototypes are commonplace in their education. But the knowledge and confidence needed to run the necessary equipment to create these models isn’t always as routine.

Enter “Build Night,” an event centered around empowered building and making in Penn State’s Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory.

After experiencing apprehension and hesitation from students in her EDSGN 100: Introduction to Engineering Design course to use the equipment found in the Learning Factory and shops throughout the College of Engineering, Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, wanted to help.   

“Building familiarity with tools can lead to engineering self-confidence or self-efficacy. Being able to successfully build something from scratch is empowering. When you are faced with a variety of challenging engineering courses, that might make you feel like ‘hey, I can’t do this,’ [but] having this hands-on experience might be just enough to quiet those voices up and help some of these students persist,” she said.

From this desire for all engineering students to feel comfortable and confident in shops, Menold’s brainchild, "Build Night," was born. On Jan. 14, more than 65 female engineering students attended the first spring 2019 Build Night and completed their first training for and used the machinery often needed to create design projects.

As part of a larger series of events focused on increasing female and minority student engagement with the Learning Factory, Build Nights establish and strengthen engineering skills by presenting attendees with hands-on making activities. Led by Menold, the event was also facilitated by Sarah Ritter, assistant teaching professor of engineering design; Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach and assistant teaching professor of engineering leadership; Elizabeth Starkey, postdoctoral scholar in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs; and Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil engineering.

“These workshops teach students that it is okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes and keep trying. Most builds won’t go right the first time, or maybe even the second time, but you’ll learn how to use a drill or how to solder up some electronics in the process. The next time you try to build something you’ll be able to rely on this experience to successfully navigate obstacles.”

—Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering

At the kick-off event, students were presented with four possible builds — creating a laser cut sign, building a laptop desk for their beds, making a metal smartphone holder and inventing new gadgets with LittleBits, easy-to-use electronic building block kits.

Menold said projects ideas are generated from students' suggestions. Final project options are selected to match skills students have indicated they have an interest in.

Megan Costantino, a sophomore mechanical engineering student who attended the event, said being able to properly train on and use the Learning Factory’s variety of tools and equipment to build a product is something all students should experience.

“Future employers seek out students who have the ability to innovate and design new products. This is why it’s important that the upcoming engineers know how to properly design a product and create prototypes,” she said. “Not only will this type of training enhance ones hands-on design skills, but I feel like it is also a unique avenue to be creative. The Learning Factory allows you to take your mind off of the books for a few hours and craft something that you can take pride in.”

For Ritter, Build Night events offer her the chance to mentor students, helping them to build the confidence and skillset she was able to develop during her undergraduate experience.

“Early in my college career, my engineering course sequence required a variety of different hands-on, or making, skills from circuits to woodworking to metal work. These experiences helped to build my confidence and impacted my desire to be an engineer,” Ritter said. “I think that these Build Nights are a wonderful way to build a community of builders and makers that will lead to a positive impact beyond the participants themselves.”

Constantino agrees, sharing that building in the encouraging Build Night environment was very inspiring.

“At times, it can be intimidating to be a female in a STEM field, but whenever I am around other very motivated women with similar goals and interests, I remember why I chose to become an engineer,” she said. “At Build Night, I learned that no matter what challenges come about, there are so many outlets that I can reach out to — fellow students, professors and other engineering faculty — who are so willing to teach me new things.”

Build Nights are sponsored by and held at the Learning Factory, a hands-on facility for engineering students to use in conjunction with capstone design and other courses, as well as research projects and student organizations. The Learning Factory is led by Matt Parkinson, director and professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering. Learning Factory supervisors Bill Genet and Rob McAllister help to facilitate the trainings and projects associated with Build Nights.

  • Engineering student uses vice to bend sheet metal

    Sarah Ploener, first-year engineering student, uses a vice to bend sheet metal into a smartphone stand.

    IMAGE: Meg Handley
  • A group of people listen to a woman talking

    Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, talks with Build Night attendees about the equipment found in the Learning Factory.

    IMAGE: Meg Handley
  • Female student sitting at computer working on design

    An engineering student uses SOLIDWORKS to create a sketch to be laser cut.

    IMAGE: Meg Handley
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Last Updated January 29, 2019