Abington summer program supports diversity in future engineers

September 11, 2020

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington is supporting the next generation of engineers through the Engineering Ahead program. The goal of the four-week summer program is to increase retention among a diverse group of engineering students by enhancing their academic preparedness. 

More than 85% of this summer’s group of 22 Abington Engineering Ahead participants are from various underrepresented categories: ethnic minorities, women, first-generation college students, and low-income students.

“Even though the program was fully online this year, we had a record number of applicants. This was the strongest and largest cohort since the pilot predecessor program in 2013 to date,” Michael Kagan, associate professor of physics and Engineering Ahead coordinator, said. “The students invested a lot of time and effort in their work.”

The intense program, which was delivered remotely to incoming first-year students, started each day with math “boot camp,” taught by lecturer in math Stan Ritvin, that focused on pre-calculus and problem-solving exercises from 9 a.m. to noon. After the lecture portion of the morning, students would go to breakout rooms to work with one of the eight teaching assistants, several of whom are Engineering Ahead graduates. 

The afternoons varied between metacognition classes with Abby Auxter, a mathematics instructor at Abington, and work on projects for industry partners Lockheed Martin and Accudyne Systems.

Alumnus Stephan Zweidler, executive director at Accudyne and a member of the Abington Advisory Board, spent hours volunteering his time to develop four presentations and to design real-life engineering projects for the students. 

“The students felt very enthusiastic to experience firsthand what real engineering projects could be like and even more so to learn from such a high-level professional like Stephan,” Kagan said. 

External speaker presentations on a variety of topics rounded out the days. Among the people the students met virtually were Penn State engineering alumni Melissa Daniels Foster, chief engineer for ExxonMobil Chemical, and Bryant Warmate, a systems engineer and recruiter for General Motors.

There were also outside assignments that needed to be completed.

Catherine Cohan, assistant research professor in the College of Engineering, tracks Engineering Ahead students as they progress toward their degrees.

“Slow and steady wins the race in math,” she reminded them. “We want you to reach whatever goal you are setting for yourself.” 

“I definitely feel a lot more prepared for college. I’m in the right place at Abington.”

— Larry Keck, first-year student

Another goal of the program is to prepare students for the rigors of college and allow them to form relationships with other students and faculty before fall classes even start.

“I definitely feel a lot more prepared for college. I’m in the right place at Abington,” student Larry Keck said.

Jason Caetano, another student, came into the program very confident.  

“Engineering Ahead made me realize that college will be a lot of hard work,” he said.

Engineering Ahead participants will remain together this fall for their own First Year Seminar, taught by Auxter, which helps students acclimate to the new challenges and opportunities they will experience in their first semester at Abington.

The students receive a $500 stipend when they complete the program. 

The Engineering Ahead program at Penn State Abington is the result of a grant that University Park submitted, "Sustainable Bridges from Campus to Campus: Retention Models for Transitioning Engineering Students," and funded by the National Science Foundation. This year it was also supported by Penn State’s Equal Opportunity Planning Committee.

Penn State Abington 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. Additional funding has been provided by industry sponsors.

The General Engineering degree with Multidisciplinary Engineering Design option (GE-MED) at Penn State Abington incorporates advanced coursework in electrical engineering, computer engineering, and engineering design to produce innovative engineers specialized in systems design and integration.

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 4,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 22 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.    

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Last Updated September 15, 2020