Engineering is about more than just churning through equations, and Chuck Stricker wants people to realize that.
That talent in math is the defining trait needed to become an engineer is a myth that has persisted for too long, according to Stricker, an assistant teaching professor of Engineering at Penn State Berks.
“Everybody’s like, well, if I’m not good at math, I can’t be an engineer,” Stricker said. “Math is the backbone, but it’s not all that engineering is…The key is, people don’t recognize that creativity is a huge part of engineering.”
Pushing back on misconceptions surrounding the field is one of several goals of Penn State Berks’ National Engineers Week celebration.
The week was started in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers to ensure a healthy engineering and technology workforce by increasing interest in the field.
Today, Engineers Week has evolved into a celebration of engineers’ contributions to society, and is observed nationwide by more than 70 engineering, education, and cultural societies, and more than 50 companies and government agencies, according to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) website.
For Penn State Berks, the week is about introducing those interested in engineering to the realities of the field.
“(Engineers Week) softens the blow as to what engineering is and gives (students) a real-life experience as to what activities they might be seeing at Penn State, and out in the industry,” Stricker said.
First held by the Berks campus in 2006, the week includes panel discussions and networking opportunities with professional engineers, tours and technology demonstrations in the campus labs, and opportunities to speak with current students and faculty about the campus’s engineering program.
“What we try to do is bring out (engineering) alumni who have experienced the process to say ‘hey, these are the things you want to focus on, this is the timetable, and these are the next steps to create a successful career,’” Stricker said.
Some events are open to the public, while others are geared toward high school students interested in the major, Stricker said.
A few events are designed for current Penn State Berks students, like a competition where students design and program a robot to complete an obstacle course using LEGO Spike Robotics.
Penn State Berks engineering program
In addition to offering engineering students a path to main campus after two years, Penn State Berks offers two full bachelor’s degree programs in engineering: Electromechanical Engineering Technologies, started in 1996, and Mechanical Engineering, which began in 2012.
Skillsets and professional needs have evolved since the engineering programs’ inception, said Janelle Larson, head of the Division of Engineering, Business and Computing at Penn State Berks.
“Our programs prepare students to work in the 21st century,” Larson said. “The EMET program is explicitly hands on, and our ME program also has a great deal of labs…and they both have a two semester capstone experience.”
Students currently involved in Penn State Berks’ program are working with a range of local companies on capstone engineering projects, including East Penn Manufacturing, Morgan Truck Body, Gemini Bakery and Enersys.
Their training prepares students for the technological realities of modern engineering, according to Larson.
“A new course that we’re engaging right now is smart manufacturing, which looks at the internet of things, and understanding how we can take a normal engineering device, communicate through the web or cloud, do some AI or data manipulation and control it,” Stricker said. “Twenty years ago you wouldn’t have even looked at this as an idea, now we’re seeing them at the forefront of how the classroom is operating.”
Being prepared for 21st century engineering also involves being well-versed in multiple realms, including soft skills like communication, according to Stricker.
“A lot of engineering students end up becoming managers and going into a realm where their technical skills really empower them, but as they develop communication skills and creativity, they become powerful business people and can be pretty effective across industry lines,” Stricker said.
He said an example of engineering crossing disciplinary lines is the work that engineering students do with Berks campus’s occupational therapy and kinesiology labs, to better understand biomechanics.
Penn State Berks engineering students work on an exercise bike as part of their capstone project (Courtesy of Chuck Stricker)
“(Engineering students) develop assistive devices for OT students,” Larson said, “the projects that are most viable go into a second semester where they also develop a business plan.”
One recent cross-disciplinary project created by a team of recent Penn State Berks ME graduates is CarToCamp, a car camping startup that sells sleeping platforms, memory foam mattresses, and other gear that allows cars to double as sleeping space.
Stricker said part of what drew him to engineering was the ability to create projects that focus on artistry and fun.
He said he worked with companies that focused on robotics and animatronics, including Disney, and is excited about the potential of that industry.
“Now, when you think about engineering, you’re thinking about things that look robotic and humanlike, kind of taking it into the Jetsons realm where things start to be fun,” Stricker said. “That’s what I do, is to kind of soften engineering, and have people realize that, yes, we can build bridges, but we can also make things that are just fun.”
Applications of engineering have even stretched into fields like baseball, where a ball’s velocity and trajectory can be tracked using engineering sciences.
“It’s a new application of engineering that maybe in the 70s and 80s people never would have fathomed,” Stricker said. “We’re constantly looking at how we can learn about ourselves and our environment in very different ways, and it’s all because of engineering.”
That’s the major goal of Engineers Week: Allowing people to recognize just how significantly the applications of engineering have evolved.
“That’s what we’re trying to get people to see — engineering is not the same as it was 20, 30 years ago, and in 5 or 10 years, it won’t be the same as it is now,” Stricker said.
Engineers Week activities will continue at Penn State Berks through Feb. 24. More information is available on the campus website.
Penn State Berks engineering students work on a capstone project (Courtesy of Chuck Stricker)