Students from the Honors College open young minds to engineering

If you were to rank college majors according to their warm-and-fuzzy factor, engineering would not likely score very high. While this course of study has traditionally maintained a reputation for weeding out students rather than nurturing them, this is changing.

Especially at the University of Delaware.

In UD’s nationally ranked engineering department, students are encouraged to collaborate with one another to learn and solve problems, which is key to their future success in industry. And engineering majors enrolled in UD’s Honors College are keen to take this collaborative mentality one step further — they sign up to engage, also, with the wider community.

“Their curriculum is very intense, and they still make time for outreach,” said Ashutosh Khandha, professor of biomedical engineering, about the impressive drive of this group. “I do believe this is built into the Blue Hen DNA.”

Consider an innovative outreach program organized by Khandha that kicked off at UD in the spring of 2021, with support from Department Chair Kristi Kiick and Honors College Dean Michael Chajes. In what turned out to be a “beautiful partnership,” according to Khandha, his Honors biomedical engineering students paired up to create and teach a remote engineering lesson to junior and senior students at one of four area high schools.

While content centered around two important engineering concepts — complex numbers and free-body diagramming — it was not enough to relay these topics in an abstract sense, something a high school curriculum may already do. The mission was to highlight how, exactly, these concepts are applied outside of a classroom and in the real world. A professional engineer may need complex numbers to build an electrocardiogram machine for monitoring heart activity, for example, while free body diagramming, used to analyze force within a system, is important for anyone working to build a next-generation car or, say, artificial human joint.

“I am not an engineer; I went to school for education,” said participating instructor Jordan Estock, a teacher at Concord High School in the Brandywine School District. “So the UD students offered a new perspective. Sometimes, it takes someone coming in with a different qualification or a different swagger to make your students realize: ‘Oh, wow, that is cool.’”

So the guest lecturers piqued interest in engineering as a career. But perhaps even more importantly, they made such a career feel accessible.

“The UD students shared their bios with the class and it was really good to learn a little about where they are from,” said Ronney Bythwood, a physics teacher at St. Georges Technical High School in Middletown. “Many of the kids realized: ‘Oh, they’re just like us… maybe we can pursue this field as well.’” That the presenters were all racially diverse young women, Bythwood added, was especially beneficial for his class, as this helped break down the persistent stereotype that engineering is for white men in hard hats only.

This was the case for Katie Zucaro, a then-senior at Newark High School: “Anytime I see a woman in a STEM field, I remember this was just not a big thing 30, even 20 years ago,” she said. “It shows me that I can do it, too — that women in STEM are just as capable as men.”

While Zucaro, now a first-year student at UD, had already made the decision to pursue an Honors biomedical engineering degree, hearing from these Blue Hens “secured the decision for me,” she said. “It was nice to see their confidence and how refined their knowledge of the material was. It was cool to realize: I’m going to evolve like that, too.”

The experience was also a calming one. In a general Q&A session about University life following the lesson, Zucaro asked questions about balancing academic work with extracurriculars, like UD’s running club — totally feasible with time management, she learned. And she heard more about the encouraging nature of the University’s engineering department.

“I know if things get hard, there will be a group of people to surround me and support me,” she said. “Learning about the great support system at UD definitely eased my nerves.”

At the end of the program, 34 high school students completed a survey on their experience. They rated their overall satisfaction a 4.8 out of 5, meaning this pilot is set to become a recurring project — the next iteration is already in the works.

But it is not just the high school pupils who gained from the initiative. The college presenters also found the experience invaluable. Take Katy Strand, a junior at UD aiming for a career in the field of prosthetics.

“Because I want to work in a clinical setting, there will be a lot of communication required with doctors and patients,” she said. “I will need to know how to break down engineering jargon in an understandable way, so I appreciate the opportunity to practice. I’m very used to doing oral presentations for professors who already know the material. Being on the other side is challenging but, I think, very beneficial.”

Of course, success in this arena goes beyond career preparation. Participating Blue Hens agreed: That cutthroat reputation notwithstanding, it is the personal fulfillment of mentoring a new generation of engineers that has proven the most rewarding aspect of this teaching assignment.

For Abigail McCann, a senior at UD, such outreach is just as meaningful as any curriculum retained in her years on campus.

“Just going to school isn’t really enough,” she said. “I don’t want to go into a classroom and merely listen to a professor speak, day after day. Being able to give back — to connect with other students — that’s what makes college worthwhile.”

| Photo by Evan Krape |