Engineering Nebraska, Summer07
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From Lincoln to Boston

Through the Engineering Learning Community, students can make industry connections before taking a single engineering course.
by Ashley Washburn

students studying through the Engineering Learning Community

When Lincoln native Patty Johnson was deciding which college to attend, she ended up choosing the university just a few miles from home.

But despite her familiarity with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus, she still felt some trepidation about starting school because she didn’t know anyone in the engineering program.

Enter the Engineering Learning Community, a haven in Abel Hall where freshmen live together, take introductory classes together and even travel together.

Founded in 1997, the learning community is part academic support system, part social network. Up to 80 engineering students live in the learning community, which is open to all incoming freshmen. Prospective students indicate on their housing contracts that they’d like to join the learning community, and spots are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.

One unique aspect of the program is the guidance freshmen receive from upperclassman mentors. Like a residence assistant, a mentor lives in the learning community, helps plan activities and serves as a role model for younger students. Johnson, now a senior, was a mentor for two years.

Interaction between upperclassmen and new students is part of what helps freshmen acclimate to college life.

Kelsey Briggs of Seward met several study buddies on her floor.

“There’s always somebody at a level above you, so you go to them and say, ‘What are we doing?’ It helps you learn things you don’t understand,” Briggs said.

Since students typically don’t take engineering courses until their sophomore year, the learning community is one way they can meet their classmates right away.

“I wanted to be part of a community that would be supportive and where I could find help when I needed it,” said Cameron Schmid of Grand Island.

Throughout the school year, students tour local engineering firms and participate in faculty-student events. The pinnacle of the learning community experience, however, is the spring break trip.

This year, the learning community went to Boston and toured GE-Aviation in Lynn, Mass., and HDR’s regional headquarters. Another highlight was visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Sports Innovation, directed by UNL alumnus Kim Blair, ’83. Students also did a Titan business simulation, an exercise in which participants operate a mock business.

The spring break tradition began in 2000 when the learning community traveled to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Since then, the group has been to Denver, Texas, Chicago and Detroit, New York City and Philadelphia, and Seattle.

In recent years, the trips have become opportunities to build relationships between current students and UNL alumni. That transition began with a simple, yet serendipitous, request.

A few weeks before the trip to Chicago and Detroit in 2004, a Dean’s Office staff member called Bob Brightfelt, a 1965 and 1967 engineering graduate who lived in Lake Forest, Ill. The students wanted to try Chicago-style pizza, and the staffer wanted to know where they should go.

“I told her that I’d host them and find the best deep-dish pizza in town,” Brightfelt said.

Brightfelt then asked the staffer which automotive plants the group was going to visit in Detroit. She lamented that they hadn’t been able to gain access to any, Brightfelt recalled.

Students in front of Massachusettes Institute of Technology

Determined to help, Brightfelt called a friend who had recently moved to Detroit and asked him if he could give a plant tour to 55 students from his alma mater. Impossible, the friend told him. There wasn’t enough time to get security clearance for such a large group.

Brightfelt vowed that wouldn’t happen again. Surely there was something that he and other members of the Dean’s Advisory Board could do—after all, its members live across the United States and have connections to the nation’s top companies.

“I told them (the members) that the learning community needed better connections with industry,” Brightfelt said.

The next year, Brightfelt helped plan the group’s trip to Philadelphia and New York. That time, students were able to tour Chrysler and the plant where Gore-Tex is manufactured.

Now the itinerary includes time for students to meet UNL alumni living in the cities where the trips are held. Some advisory board members, including Brightfelt, John Dunn, ’70, and Jim Hansen, ’78, have traveled with the group several times.

The goal, Brightfelt said, is to help students meet alumni and learn networking skills that will pay off when they’re searching for internships and jobs.

“The whole concept is to have board leverage for student development on the business and industry side,” Brightfelt said.

Johnson, a chemical engineering major, said interacting with alumni has given her a different perspective of engineering than she’s learned inside the classroom. She’s learned that in the real world, disciplines overlap—and her career options aren’t limited to those in her major.

“On last year’s trip, I met the whole Dean’s Advisory Board,” Johnson said. “Most people don’t know we have one, let alone who’s on it.”

AnnMarie Williams, who oversees the university’s 10 learning communities, said Brightfelt’s ideas have brought “a new energy” to the program. Williams said University Housing is encouraging other learning communities to use the engineering college’s model.

Brightfelt also is adamant that students get the true experience of a metropolitan area, which means staying downtown instead of an airport hotel. For many students, especially those from Nebraska, it’s the first time they’ve used public transportation or figured out how to navigate an unfamiliar place with only a guidebook in hand.

Of course, luxury isn’t cheap—a trip for 50 students costs about $20,000. Generous donations from the college’s alumni and friends have ensured that students pay no more than $500 to attend.

Now retired from Dupont, Brightfelt is still the linchpin in planning the trips. He said his philosophy is to keep the students busy. The schedule always includes time for sightseeing, industry tours and a few social outings, such as professional basketball games and dinner cruises.

For Schmid, a history buff, touring the Freedom Trail was one of the highlights of going to Boston.

“When you are in Nebraska, you don’t get to see things from the Revolutionary War,” he said. “It’s special to see things that are literally out of the history books.”

The agenda is refined each year. A popular addition this time was roundtable discussions with recent college graduates working at GE-Aviation and HDR. The panelists covered topics ranging from developing good study habits to finding internships to surviving one’s first professional job.

Peter Nelson, a sophomore and first-year mentor from Sioux Falls, S.D., said he received some valuable advice from the panelists.

“It’s better to get the perspective from young engineers instead of executives who have been there awhile,” Nelson said. “Not to discredit them, but at this point in my life, it’s great to hear from someone younger.”

And, what could be better than spending spring break with friends?

“I love these trips,” Nelson said. “They’ve allowed me to explore the city with a cool group of guys and explore all the engineering possibilities in this general area.”

Individuals wishing to support the Learning Community and other student activities
in the College of Engineering may direct gifts to:

University of Nebraska Foundation
Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board
Student Program Support Fund #8821
1010 Lincoln Mall Suite 300
Lincoln, NE 68508

Memories of Boston

The Engineering Learning Community tours Boston’s business district.

Dave Williams, Seth Harper and Ashley Grace take a break from

In alumnus Kim Blair’s sports technology lab at MIT, Cameron Schmid tries  on an aerodynamic bicycle helmet similar to one worn by Lance Armstrong.

HDR’s Peter O’Reilly shares the details of Boston’s “Big Dig” project, the  most technologically challenging infrastructure project in U.S. history.

Christina Knapp tells Derek Ruyle and Megan Lindell her strategy for  winning the Titan business simulation. (Team Synergy won—though some  grumbled that it had an unfair advantage with, Knapp, a senior, in charge.)

Derek Ruyle, Ryan Oatman and Andrew Haskins at MIT’s Center for Sports

At Jillian’s of Boston, Bob Brightfelt, ’65, ’70, plays pool with Learning Community mentors Christina Knapp, Patty Johnson and Malinda  Lammers.

John Dunn, ’70, and Patty Johnson discuss career options in chemical  engineering.

Paul Revere’s statue was a popular stopping point along the Freedom Trail.

Learning Community members went to a Boston Celtics game—and even