The first graduates with engineering degrees in alternative energy and power generation from Penn State Hazleton are anticipating the future, just as Associate Professor of Engineering Wieslaw "Wes" Grebski did when starting their program.
"Very often in engineering, if you want to be ahead, you have to kind of get a sense of what's coming to position yourself," Grebski said.
Grebski realized the growing need for engineers who can tap into renewable energy as society struggles to produce more power while reducing climate-changing emissions.
His insights convinced Penn State to start the four-year degree program, which is launching this year's graduates toward jobs and graduate schools and is drawing students to Hazleton.
"I chose the program because of the growing need for energy and conservation of the environment," said Richelle Reeder, who plans to look for employment in the energy field and do research after she receives her diploma. The program, she said, "also teaches engineers that we impact everything around us and need to know how and what we can do to minimize the impact."
The program brings students to Hazleton for a four-year degree conferred nowhere else in the Penn State system: a Bachelor of Science Degree in General Engineering with an Alternative Energy and Power Generation Track. Three of the five graduates this year spent time at the main campus before selecting the program and completing their degrees in Hazleton.
Faculty at Hazleton and the Hazleton Engineering Advisory Committee of alumni who work in engineering and power generation brainstormed about how to set up the program.
Grebski, who drove a solar car on campus and installed a wind turbine and solar panels next to the bookstore, thinks of the advisory committee as the ecosystem for the program. Members hail from organizations such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Lockheed and the National Science Foundation, as well as local engineering and electrical firms.
They packed the curriculum with skills that students will need to design the power systems of the future.
"Energy is such a multidisciplinary domain that these students need to learn to be extremely versatile," Assistant Professor of Engineering Joseph Ranalli said.
Students completed courses in chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering, plus computer science and mathematics during their first three years. As seniors, they designed systems for their capstone projects.
One group working on a capstone project knew that solar-electric systems work better in low temperatures so they piped in cooling water. The piping kept the electrical system efficient, and siphoned off heat for use elsewhere.
Another group devised solar panels that float in lakes and ponds to catch more sun than panels would amid trees and hills on land. They tested their panels for stability in the campus swimming pool.
"They were doing cannonballs right next to it," Associate Professor of Engineering Kenneth Dudeck said.
Splashing into the pool isn't the only way that students discover the links between their classroom studies and the outside world.
Assistant Professor of Physics David Starling said students enjoyed hearing real-life examples in class, such as a lesson on the physics of bungee jumping.
Students submitted their work to undergraduate research fairs, and Senior Engineering Instructor Maryam Ghorieshi said research and laboratory work will become a larger component of the program.
"Students are interested in development and testing of a typical energy system such as wind turbine or solar panels, which will greatly enhance the instructional delivery in classroom," Ghorieshi said.
Engineering students also joined the Science and Engineering Club or worked in internships that professors or alumni advisers arrange.
Adebayo Adejare, after graduating, will begin an internship at the Philadelphia Navy Yard where Penn State and other institutions formed a consortium to reduce energy that buildings use by 50 percent in the next 15 years.
"I'll be a research assistant for building re-tuning," said Adejare, who plans to apply to graduate schools this summer. He learned about the internship through Grebski, who met with faculty from the consortium soon after President Barack Obama unveiled the program during a speech at Penn State's University Park campus in 2011.
When Grebski went to a conference on sustainability in Bethune, France in 2012, Tiffany Veet, who will graduate from the engineering program, also attended.
"I worked with students from four different nationalities on consumers' appreciation of food products from sustainable agriculture projects," said Veet, who plans to study for a master's degree in biomedical engineering at Wilkes University.
Veet said the individual attention that she and other students received at Penn State Hazleton prepared her for her next step.
"The small campus atmosphere is something I value greatly. I am so happy I have had the opportunity to establish such great relationships with my professors and classmates," she said.
Graduating Senior Brett Fidishun said the program helped train him not just as an engineer, but also as a professional and a communicator.
"I feel that through my interactions with my professors as well as my fellow classmates, I have developed very professional communication skills, which I found to be essential during my interview with Lutron," Fidishun said. He will work at Lutron, a company in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, that develops energy-saving controls for lighting.
Grebski said the job market is strong for the graduates, and the program prepares them for a variety of jobs, not just with power companies.
Matthew Webber lined up an internship with a manufacturer two years ago and arranged an internship with a manufacturer after graduation, even though he will continue to seek work in the power industry.
Webber was studying aerospace engineering at Penn State Schuylkill when cutbacks at NASA and aerospace firms led to him to switch to energy engineering. The switch added a year to his studies, but he also gained a minor in business while earning his engineering degree.
"I just like the fact that it covers a broad range of material," Webber said. "It gives you a broader range of options. We can branch out."
Grebski was honored to be selected at commencement to read the names of the five graduates: Veet, Fidishun, Adejare, Reeder and Webber.
The faculty, he said, are ready for the engineering students who will follow.
"I want a bright future for the program. The way to do this is to get the right people. It seems to be getting great people," said Grebski, who plans to transfer leadership roles to his younger colleagues. "When I look at them, it makes me feel good. That's the way to make the program grow."