Engineering Ahead aims to bridge gap for incoming students

Program celebrates its eighth year at Penn State Berks
Berks Engineering Ahead

Engineering Ahead students had an opportunity to attend in-person lab presentations on campus and took field trips to tour four local industries: Brentwood Industries in Reading, Seakeeper Inc. in Leesport, Carpenter Technology Corporation in Reading and American Crane and Equipment Corporation in Douglassville.

Credit: Penn State

WYOMISSING, Pa. — Penn State Berks is helping a future generation of engineering students succeed through the college’s Engineering Ahead Program, which is now in its eighth year. The goal of the four-week summer “bridge” program, which ran from June 25 to July 21, is to increase retention rates among a diverse group of engineering students by enhancing academic preparedness and developing a support network. Engineering Ahead continues to provide support for students transitioning to college through a first-year seminar, a second-semester STEM Persistence seminar and access to the Jump Start Program at University Park.

“Being part of Engineering Ahead has made me feel more like an engineer,” said Aaron Smith, a first-year student from Hamburg. “I decided to apply to this program because I heard it would give me a leg up on my college journey. I felt the math review was most helpful, though the industry visits were the most enjoyable. This program has prepared me for college level math and has given me some direction for obtaining an internship or research project.”

Ryan Hassler, Engineering Ahead coordinator and 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," Hassler said. "The problem is two-fold: recruitment and retention. Only about 18% of first-year students nationwide enter college as a declared STEM major. Of the 60% of students who earn an engineering degree, only 12% are from underrepresented populations.”

Students from a variety of academic backgrounds come from the tri-state area, which includes Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, and beyond to apply for a seat in the program. This year’s 19-student cohort also included students from Virginia, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. The students plan to study in various engineering disciplines, including aerospace, architectural, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer engineering, computer science, electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering.

Daily schedules include intensive math “boot camps” focused on pre-calculus, problem-solving exercises, facilitated tutoring sessions, faculty and external speaker presentations on a variety of topics, and discussion of the course textbook, "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. The program also covers such subjects as the scientific method, technology integration and career exploration.

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. Kathleen Hauser, assistant teaching professor in engineering, also mentored the students this year for their engineering design community engagement project. In total, more than 32 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 and mentors: Tyler Albert, second-year aerospace engineering major from Sinking Spring; Tyler Brazenec, third-year aerospace engineering major from Shillington; Jocelyn Espinoza, second-year aerospace engineering major from Bloomfield, New Jersey; and Emmerson Velazquez, second-year electrical engineering major from Reading.

“Being a mentor for Engineering Ahead was an amazing experience that I'll never forget," Albert said when asked why he returned to the program as an assistant. "I was able to look back at myself a year ago and show the incoming students all the things I wish I was shown throughout my first year. It was rewarding to see the student's work become that of a successful college student in less than four weeks, which is something that I believe has taken longer to realize for those who do not go through this program. Getting a realistic taste of how the semester will be for incoming students is one of the most beneficial things that they got, other than the math, of course.”

For Espinoza, she said the opportunity to work as a mentor was exciting.

“I’m very happy I got the opportunity to work as a resident assistant and mentor for Engineering Ahead, because it let me give back to the program that guided me throughout my first year," Espinoza said. "Being a mentor has helped me strengthen my communication and leadership skills, as well as enabled me to meet new members of the Penn State Berks community. I hope they enjoyed the program as much or even more than I did.”

The program aims to help participants 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. They also attended presentations by Penn State engineering alumni and local community leaders including Melissa Daniels Foster, Penn State alumna and retired chief engineer with ExxonMobile Chemical, career development, and John Weidenhammer, president of Weidenhammer Industry.

Students also had an opportunity to attend in-person lab presentations on campus and took field trips to tour four local industries: Brentwood Industries in Reading, Seakeeper Inc. in Leesport, Carpenter Technology Corporation in Reading and American Crane and Equipment Corporation in Douglassville. The students also visited the Berks LaunchBox in Reading and University Park.

Students also 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; 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; and Nathan Bonslaver, founder of CarToCamp.

It wasn’t all work and no play for the Engineering Ahead students, Hassler said. They also participated in four community service projects: packing weekender bags for local schools with Helping Harvest Food Bank; working on trail maintenance projects with Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center; working with Youth Volunteer Corp (VOICE UP) of Reading fifth–seventh graders to build and race solar powered cars; and working with Berks Nature to design a playscape to bring a love of nature to clients of Opportunity House, Reading’s emergency shelter.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with our eighth cohort of Penn State Berks Engineering Ahead scholars,” Hassler said. “Collectively, these 19 incoming first-year students embody the qualities of great engineers: natural curiosity, creativity, logical thinking and attention to detail. My passion for helping students transition from high school to college is fueled by their thirst for knowledge and dedication to their academic potential.

According to Hassler, he has high hopes for these students.

"They are to be commended for the sacrifices they have made this summer to set themselves on a path of success," Hassler said. "These scholars are also incredibly selfless and recognize their role in helping the greater Berks community become a better place to live and learn. In times of uncertainty and unrest in our society, I am encouraged by the commitment that these students have shown to becoming future engineers tasked with solving some of our world’s greatest problems.”

Engineering Ahead scholar Alexander Maldonado, of Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, summarized his experience concisely. 

“To me this program is an opportunity to explore what engineering is and to get to know other students like me who are coming into their first year of college," Maldonado said. "I have received wisdom from the mentors that have gone through the program before and who already have experience with college. Engineering Ahead gave me a chance to better myself both academically and socially.”

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

For more information about the Engineering Ahead Program at Penn State Berks, contact Hassler at 610-396-6127 or via email at [email protected].