Secret Lives of Staff: Meet Steven Miller, history buff

There’s so much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see them doing on campus. In this occasional series, we take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Some people make it a goal to visit every state or capitol, but Steven Miller ’06, associate director of Housing and Food Services at Penn State Behrend, is a World War II reenactor and Penn State Behrend history alumnus who is working on a more unique challenge: He has a goal of visiting the private residences of every U.S. president. He’s already been to twenty.

“Visiting presidential homes offers an insight into the private life of individuals who had a profound impact on the formation and development of our country,” Miller said. “The homes and grounds themselves show a progression of architecture and lifestyle through history, from the vast agricultural farmlands of the Founding Fathers to the urban presidents of today.”

It all started with a trip to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s home in Gettysburg, a stop on Miller’s itinerary while visiting Gettysburg National Military Park.

“It evolved into an annual summer trip with my brother, a challenge to visit the private residences of past presidents, with the goal of visiting all forty-five of them,” Miller said.

We chatted with Miller to learn more about his adventures and the homes he’s been most impressed with.

Are presidents’ residences public?

Yes, most presidential private residences belong to the National Park Service and are open to the public for tours. Information on their locations and visiting information can be found on the National Park website at nps.gov/findapark.

Do you plan vacations around visiting presidential homes?

I typically plan our itinerary around visiting both presidential sites and museums. Some of the most extensive collections of historical military artifacts are in museums located at the service academies, such as West Point or the United States Naval Academy, and often I will add these into our itineraries. Thirteen presidents have homes in New York, Ohio or Virginia, so from here where we live, creating a travel itinerary that takes you by a president’s home is fairly easy. One of the things we enjoy on these visits is eating at local establishments as much as possible; we try to avoid chain restaurants.

Who is your favorite (or most admired) president and why?

My favorite modern president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). He was elected at the height of the Great Depression, and through various public programs, he got the country back on its feet. He then led the nation through four years of World War II and was the only president elected to four terms in office. He also founded the March of Dimes with the goal of finding a vaccine for polio.

What are some of the more famous homes you’ve seen so far?

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home; Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home; Montpelier, James Monroe’s home; and Springwood, FDR’s home.

Have any the homes surprised you in any way?

It is impressive to see how some of these homes are incredibly preserved with original furnishings and furniture.

What does history mean to you? Why is it important to study and learn about history?

I am always searching for a connection to the past, and visiting historical sites, whether presidential homes or museums, let us see the tangible items that create those links. Visiting these homes is like stepping into the past. It’s amazing to think about walking in the footsteps of some of the most influential people in our country’s history.

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Get Lost in Space with Yahn Planetarium

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager at Penn State Behrend

In an uncertain world, it helps to keep your chin up. Way up. Tipped to the sky, in fact. There’s nothing like the vastness of the heavens above to inspire awe and put one’s existence on planet Earth in perspective: Just one tiny human on one small planet contemplating millions of planets and solar systems spinning tens of thousands of lightyears away.

When you really delve into it, space science is mind-blowing and, frankly, who among us couldn’t use a distraction these days? Yahn Planetarium at Penn State Behrend has just what you need, and you can find it online, for free.

“It’s been difficult for the planetarium during this time as we normally thrive on school groups and the public coming in to experience the immersive planetarium,” said Jim Gavio, planetarium director. “But, like many educational facilities, we have adapted to remotely teaching astronomy and space science.”

Gavio has been recording presentations and posting them online at behrend.psu.edu/yahnplanetarium. He is also doing monthly star talks, in which he guides viewers in looking at the current night sky in the Erie area, as well as occasional special presentations, such as one on SpaceX’s recent Demo-2 launch and one on the basics of using a telescope.

The planetarium is also offering virtual field trips, interactive group presentations led by offered by Gavio via Zoom.

“During the bulk of the group programming, I try to simulate what they would see in the planetarium,” he said. “I use an astronomy program that simulates the night sky here in Erie so that I can point out specific constellations and stars and planets that they would see in the sky that night.”

His largest virtual group so far was 130 middle school students this spring.

“The teacher sent me questions from the students in advance, which made for a smooth presentation, in which I could focus on some things they were learning at that time. The teacher told me that she, the parents, and the kids were thrilled to have the experience as it gave them a break from schoolwork and an event to look forward to.”

Speaking of looking forward, Gavio has been using the downtime at the planetarium to develop new programming and to do minor maintenance work on the facility.

“The planetarium has been going nonstop for six years, and we’ve had more than 46,000 visitors in that time, so the space is showing some wear,” Gavio said. “While we’d much rather have Yahn Planetarium open, closing it to visitors has given us time to do some repairs and improvements.”

If you need a good reason to get lost in the stars, Gavio has one for you: NASA will be launching another rover to Mars sometime during the launch window of July 20 to August 11.

“The rover will be looking for signs of microbial life on Mars,” he said. “Another really exciting aspect of the rover will be the small helicopter drone that it carries that will fly around on Mars. This is a first and will be very exciting to watch.”

Not into rovers? How about comets?

“During July and August, we also have Comet NEOWISE which looks like it will be pretty visible to people if they choose to look for it,” Gavio said.

He warns, though, that comets can be tricky.

“Sometimes we think they may be easy to see, then they fizzle out,” he said. “Comet NEOWISE won’t be as noticeable as Comet Hale-Bop was back in the late 1990s, but you should be able to see it with the naked-eye or better yet, with a simple pair of binoculars. In mid- to late-July, it can be seen low in the northwest after sunset. As we head into August, it will climb higher and further from sunset so that it will be in a darker sky. If you’ve never seen a comet, this is one of the best chances we’ve had in long time.”

So, get that chin waaaay up because there’s always something exciting going on in the skies above you. Get lost in space for a little while with Yahn Planetarium.

See Yahn Planetarium at Penn State Behrend videos and schedule a virtual tour at behrend.psu.edu/yahnplanetarium. For more information, contact Jim Gavio, planetarium director, at 814-898-7268 or jvg10@psu.edu.

Resilience Pays Off for Engineering Students

Plans change but summer learning experiences continue

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, it disrupted not only the last few weeks of the academic semester for Penn State Behrend students, but also summer plans, too. With activity across the country and most of the world at a standstill, job offers, internships, and research opportunities were suddenly vanishing or being put on hold.

Even in a time as tumultuous as this, though, persistence and ingenuity pay off, and many Behrend students have been able to find ways to continue learning and getting hands-on experience from home this summer.

Caralyn Harben

Caralyn Harben, intern at Northrop Grumman

Caralyn Harben, a junior majoring in Software Engineering, had been looking forward to spending her summer in sunny California working at Northrop Grumman’s Redondo Beach location before the coronavirus conspired to keep her at home.

While she laments the location change, she is thankful to still have the opportunity to support the company’s Space Systems division as a software engineering intern. 

“I was lucky that Northrop Grumman decided to continue their internship program with many of us, including me, working remotely,” Harben said. “They shipped my work computer and additional hardware to me.”

In addition to her internship duties, Harben is an active member of the company’s intern council where she helps plan various virtual social events to keep her peers connected.

“I’m having a lot of fun with the work and the council, and it’s been a blast learning more about the company as a whole,” she said.

Micahel Magnotti

Michael Magnotti, paid research assistant

Industrial Engineering sophomore Michael Magnotti wants to get as much hands-on experience as he can before he graduates from Behrend. “Research is all about learning and I love to learn,” said Magnotti, who is also a Schreyer Honors scholar.

So when he learned about a summer research opportunity with Dr. Faisal Aqlan, associate professor of industrial engineering, and Carol Putman, assistant teaching professor of management, Magnotti teamed up with two other classmates, Samantha Melnik and Cameron Butts, to work on the project that focuses on applying an abstract concept to everyday business processes.

“Our team is working on developing a concept relationship map and an implementation plan for Industry 4.0 in manufacturing and the service industry,” Magnotti said. “First, we identified the main pillars of Industry 4.0 and how they are relate to one other and then we developed a visual representation of this relationship and created a simulation model for a small-scale implementation of Industry 4.0.”

It’s a paid position, which Magnotti said he appreciates in light of the time it requires, and it’s one that was easily adapted to an at-home work format. The Penn State Behrend Undergraduate Student Summer Remote Research Fellowship he received requires the research work be completed with software and tools that are free and available to the public on the Internet.

“You would think a virtual research experience like this would be mostly writing, but we have many different physical deliverables as well as simulation programs that allow us to be more physically creative instead of solely reading and writing every day,” Magnotti said. “The experience is incredibly exciting, even with the reading and writing, and I am so grateful to Penn State Behrend for giving students opportunities throughout these uncertain and stressful times.”

Rebecca Grey

Rebecca Grey, intern turned researcher

Rebecca Grey, a senior Mechanical Engineering major, had a summer internship lined up, but it was rescinded due to the pandemic.

“When my internship was canceled, I figured that I would probably spend my summer doing research since I am a member of the Schreyer Honors College and was beginning to transition research into work for my honors thesis,” Grey said.

But then, Dr. Charlotte de Vries, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, told her about the Multi-Campus Research Experience for Undergraduates (MCREU) organized by University Park.

Grey had worked with de Vries on a research project investigating the use of 3D printers to produce accessibility aids to support aging in place. Aging in place is an initiative largely centered on improving home accessibility to allow older adults to live in their homes longer. 

Grey submitted a last-minute application and was accepted as the program was approved to go fully virtual for the summer. 

“I am still doing research with Dr. de Vries and was also given another mentor for the MCREU program, Swapnil Sinha, who is a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at University Park,” Grey said. “My research has now transitioned from what is being printed on a 3D printer to focusing on improving the overall usability of the physical 3D printer.”

To that end, Grey is working on developing guidelines for 3D printers governed by the principles of universal design, a concept that focuses on product and building design that is accessible and user-friendly for individuals of varying ages and physical abilities 

Grey said the project is going well and she has benefitted from having a second mentor.  

“I am reviewing a lot of literature, analyzing various aspects of 3D printers that cause issues, looking for areas of improvement, and designing a survey for future use to gain more perspective on usability issues that others have dealt with,” she said. “In a remote research environment, it has been great working with a professor I know and have previously conducted research with. Having an additional mentor as well has been helpful in bringing a new perspective to my project and extra tips on conducting effective research.” 

Behrend’s Youth Outreach Wants to Send You on a Wild GooseChase this Summer

By Heather Cass, 

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

goosechase

With many camps and activities canceled this summer, it can be challenging to keep the kids entertained, but Penn State Behrend’s Youth Education Outreach program came up with a fun and family-friendly idea: an all-ages digital scavenger hunt utilizing a free smartphone application called GooseChase.

Just download the application and join the “Behrend Summer Fun” game to get a list of weekly tasks. Behrend will add new “missions” every week until the end of August.

The missions might be indoors or out and will include things like photo challenges, family games, hands-on activities, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) challenges, and more. Trying new things will be encouraged!

This week’s missions are themed around the Fourth of July. A few sample tasks (each worth 100 points): Take a photo of yourself dressed in red, white, and blue; build something using only red, white, and blue LEGOS; take a photo with an American flag; design and enjoy a home-made slip-n-slide, and more.

“The tasks are designed to get kids out and about having fun while also sneaking in some educational activities and lessons,” said Melanie Ford, director of Youth Education Outreach at Penn State Behrend.

Need more incentive? Prizes will be awarded to the top three players and other randomly-drawn players, too.

Download the GooseChase application at your favorite app store and search for “Behrend Summer Fun” or use the code: JW9WLZ to join the game.

For more information and the latest news on the “Behrend Summer Fun” scavenger hunt, follow Behrend’s Youth Education Outreach program on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PSBOutreach/.