Engineering Grad to Serve in Peace Corps in Africa

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

Alex Laffey - first choice

This is the time of year that graduating college seniors are making decisions about their future. Should they accept the job offer in Baltimore or the one in Chicago? Should they go to graduate school or pursue a research position?

For Alex Laffey, a senior Mechanical Engineering major, there are no questions. She has known what she’s wanted to do after college since her first year of high school.

“I learned about the Peace Corps in my freshman history class, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” Laffey said. “Former president John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps as a means for individuals in America to volunteer internationally, and I figured this was the best way to go to combine my passion for traveling and service.”

Laffey, a Pittsburgh native, will leave in July to serve for two years as a secondary math education teacher in Sierra Leone, Africa. We caught up with her to ask her about the exciting adventure she will embark on after her graduation in May.

What solidified your decision to volunteer with the Peace Corps?

Last summer, I traveled to India for two weeks to visit a friend. It was the first time I had ever been away from my parents and home in a completely new environment, and I loved it. I loved trying all of the new foods, being a minority, and even learning a little bit of the language. Seeing the country also showed me how much the rest of the world needs our help. As soon as I came back from India, I immediately started my application.

Did you choose Africa, or does the Peace Corps decide where you go?

When I applied, I was asked to list the top three places I would like to serve. Sierra Leone was my first choice. It stood out in my mind from a book I had read—A Long Way Gone. I didn’t even put a second and third choice because I figured that if I couldn’t go to Africa, I’d be happy to go wherever they needed me. Luckily, it worked out that they needed math teachers in Sierra Leone and the Corps had a new group leaving in July.

Has anyone in your family ever served in the Peace Corps or do they volunteer?

Nobody in my family has ever served in the Peace Corps, but my parents always taught me to help others. Not only have they helped me with everything tremendously, but they also go out of their way to help others. They are constantly volunteering and making a difference in our community and abroad. They were my inspiration for wanting to go.

Do you choose what you will be doing there?

You volunteer in one of six sectors for the Peace Corps: agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth development. Like with location, I had to rank my top three preferences. I initially wasn’t sure what sector I wanted to volunteer in, but after speaking with a recruiter she suggested teaching because of my engineering degree.

Will you be in the same location for the entire two years?

I will be in the same country for the whole two years, but in different cities. When I arrive in July, I will be staying with a host family for three months to help with cultural integration and adjustment. After those three months, I will begin my two years of service, and the Peace Corps will decide where to place me. So, as of right now, I know that I will be in Sierra Leone. I just don’t know exactly where.

What do you know about Africa? Do they speak English? Do you go to any training to help you before you leave?

When I arrive in July, I will begin with three months of training. This includes safety, health, teaching, and even how to properly do laundry. The official language is English, but throughout the villages, many different languages are spoken so I will get a basic overview of all of those. Right now, I have been reading a lot different books about the location, and the Peace Corps has provided me with a lot of information. They also put me in touch with Peace Corps volunteers who were in Sierra Leone and that has been very helpful!

What are you taking? How does one pack for two years?

I am honestly not sure how I am going to pack all of my stuff! I can only take a carry-on, one personal item, and two suitcases. I’ve been reading a lot of blogs, and talking to returned volunteers about what is most essential. I know I will definitely be getting a hammock to enjoy the nice weather, and a bunch of solar chargers so that I can use my laptop and phone while I am there.

Where will you be living? What are the conditions like? Are they primitive?

After my first three months with a host family, I will move to my official site where I will stay for two years. It could be in a city or a village, and I won’t know that until later. Regardless, I will have internet access, so I can keep in touch with friends and family.

How many vaccinations do you have to get?

So far, I have only had to get two shots, but I have had a lot of blood work done. The Peace Corps gave me a list of twenty-some tasks that I must complete to be medically cleared to go. It has been taking awhile to get through all of those. Many of them are to ensure the country I’m traveling to can handle any medical needs I may have, and that I will respond well to medicines commonly available there.

What are you most excited about?

All of it! I cannot wait to meet the people I will be serving with and the students I’ll be teaching and to see the country. I’ve read a lot about the country and the people there and, at this point, I’m just ready to experience it all first-hand.

Is there anything that makes you nervous/apprehensive about this trip?

I am definitely nervous to be so far away from the amazing support system I have at home. It’s definitely going to be hard to do it all alone, but I know that my family and friends are only a phone call away, and that I have other volunteers to lean on while I am there.

What did your parents say when you told them you were doing this?

At first, they were really supportive, but I think that’s because they thought I wouldn’t go through with it. When I was accepted, I was hesitate to bring it up because I didn’t want them to worry. It is a lot for them to deal with. I mean, their daughter is graduating from college and moving 5,000 miles away to living in an African village for two years. But they’ve already planned a trip to visit me, and I think that has really helped ease their minds.

What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

I am hoping to gain a new perspective, and make a difference. I can get caught up in my “problems” and think that I’m having a bad day, but the truth is that I am very fortunate. I also want to teach others and encourage them to keep learning. If I can help just one student while I am there, it will be enough.

Will you get to come home at all? How will you keep in touch with your family/friends while you’re away?

I am not allowed to travel outside of Africa for the first six months or the last three months of my service. Other than that, I am able to come home or go to other countries to sightsee. I receive two vacation days a month and I can save them up for a longer trip. Friends and family are welcome (and encouraged) to visit!

What are you plans when you return to the states?

I have no idea! I am hoping to come back and spend time with friends and family, eat all of the food I will have missed, and then hopefully find a job in engineering.

Laffey plans to blog about her experiences in Africa. Follow her at alexandralaffey.wordpress.com. Read more about Laffey in her Standout Senior profile.

No age limit on Penn State pigskin pride

Dick Koeck ’47 and his wife, Susan ’49 fell in love at University Park—with each other and with Penn State football. Throughout the next few decades, the couple periodically traveled to Happy Valley to attend games, tailgating with friends and cheering on their alma mater’s team.

“It’s just more fun to watch with friends,” Dick Koeck said.

That’s why, when he and Susan moved to an Erie retirement community, Dick decided to bring the spirit of Beaver Stadium to Springhill Senior Living on game days, offering to organize PSU pigskin parties in the common room.

“I knew there were a few Penn Staters at Springhill and I just thought ‘Why not try and get them all together to watch games?’” he said.

Anywhere from twenty to thirty enthusiastic residents, including many alumni and former Penn State Behrend faculty members and administrators, gather for each game.

Among the attendees Penn State Behrend alums may recognize are: Dr. Ed Masteller, professor of biology emeritus; Virginia McGarvey, who along with her late husband, Ray, was a great supporter of Behrend; and Ethel Kochel, wife of Behrend’s first leader, Irv Kochel, and an honorary alumna of the college.

“Oh, yes, Ethel is always there with her cowbell,” Koeck said with a chuckle.

Another resident brings a stuffed Nittany Lion mascot that sings a Penn State tune, blue and white flags are hung. The Springhill tailgaters sing the school Alma Mater and Fight Song and they do Penn State cheers, complete with pom-poms. Penn State apparel is practically required.

“Except for white-out games, of course,” Koeck said.

And what would a football party be without food?

Springhill does it right, serving up traditional tailgate favorites, such as hamburgers and hot dogs, sausage sandwiches with peppers and onions, pizza, wings, etc.

One benefit of tailgating at Springhill? It’s not an alcohol-free zone.

“Oh, sure, we might have a few beers,” Koeck said. “Gotta have that at a tailgate party.”

Plans are already underway for Penn State’s next big game – the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017.

“It has been amazing to watch the team rise to the challenge and win each week and make Penn State proud,” Kochel said. “It is always fun to have Penn Staters together to watch the game, and we are all so excited that we are going to the Rose Bowl again!”

Koeck can hardly wait to see his team in the “Granddaddy of Them All.” He already knows what he’s wearing.

“The last time Penn State played in the Rose Bowl was in January of 1995, and I’ll be wearing my sweatshirt from that game,” he said.

Penn State won that game, defeating the Oregon Ducks 38-20, so Koeck has good reason to don his lucky shirt when the Nittany Lions take on the University of Southern California Trojans at the 2017 Rose Bowl on Monday, January 2.

Koeck’s parting thoughts?

In typical Penn State football fan fashion: “WE ARE…!”

Rose Bowl Trivia: Why Monday?

The Tournament of Roses has had a “Never on Sunday” tradition since 1893, the first year since the beginning of the Tournament, that New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday. The Tournament wanted to avoid frightening horses that would be hitched outside churches and thus interfering with worship services so the events were moved to the next day, January 2. Though horses are no longer outside local churches, the tradition remains to this day. —tournamentofroses.com

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Science Alum, Ivy League Ph.D., Bound for Singapore

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

dr-jason-bennett-and-james-pander

James Pander ’12, seated, and Dr. Jason Bennett, associate professor of chemistry, photographed in 2011 at Penn State Behrend.

James Pander ’12 knew he wanted to be a scientist before he even knew what that might entail.

“I think the inspiration came from movies and TV shows, where you’d have an eccentric scientist character who could seemingly solve any problem,” Pander said. “While those programs were a big exaggeration of reality, I’ve always thought it very inspiring that you can, with enough time, money, and effort, solve just about any problem with science.”

Pander, who graduated from Penn State Behrend with degrees in Chemistry and Mathematics and minors in Physics and Statistics, recently successfully defended his Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he also earned a graduate degree in Chemistry.

He has accepted a research position at the Singapore Berkley Research Institute for Sustainable Energy, and will be moving overseas as soon as all his travel documents are in order and approved.

We caught up with James before he left to learn more about his future plans, his time at Princeton, and how his Penn State Behrend education helped him get there.

What do you like about chemistry?

Out of all the fields of science, I think chemistry is the most interesting because everything is chemistry. Chemistry occupies this interesting space between biology and physics. You can look at the chemistry of living things with biochemistry, or you can delve into the quantum mechanical world to look at the fundamentals of how atoms and molecules interact with each other using physical chemistry. And, in that way, you have a subject that has the flexibility to cover almost everything.

Did you do any research projects with faculty members while you were here?

Yes! I think that research is the single most important part of any science education. In lecture and lab courses, there is always a correct answer and a specific series of steps you take to get to that answer. That is not how the world really works. Actual science is much more open-ended. You have to figure out what information you are trying to find, how to design an experiment to best find that information, and how to interpret your results. It’s so much less straightforward and so much more exciting.

While at Behrend, I worked with Dr. Jason Bennett, associate professor of chemistry. I started in the second semester of my freshman year and worked with him until graduation. My advice for anyone interested in science is to start doing research work early! Talk to a faculty member and jump in. It’s the best way to supplement your education and to get to know the faculty. Dr. Bennett was an amazing mentor and I certainly couldn’t have been as successful as I have been without his support and the support of the rest of the chemistry department.

Was Princeton your first choice for graduate school?

Overall, when I looked at the departmental atmosphere, the professors who work there, and the location, yes, Princeton was my first choice.

Do you think the research experience you had at Behrend helped you get into Princeton?

There is no doubt in my mind that my undergraduate research experience was a big benefit as I was applying to graduate school. In graduate school, your primary job is to do research (classes and teaching are secondary) so there really is no better way to prove to them that you can be successful in that type of environment.

The best thing about Behrend is that you work directly with professors on research work, and that mentorship is invaluable.

Did you feel Behrend prepared you for an Ivy League graduate school?

Definitely. Graduate school was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. A small fraction of people continue on to post-graduate education, so you naturally end up with a group of really smart individuals from all over the world. And that is really intimidating!

You quickly go from being one of the best to middle of the pack. It’s very comparable to the transition between high school and college, and just like during that transition, the most important skill is knowing how to learn. Your job in college is to gain a broad knowledge of a subject, whereas in graduate school your job is to become an expert on a very, very specific topic. So you end up going from having virtually no specific knowledge of a field to becoming an expert in a few years, and most of that is fairly self-focused education, so you need to know how to learn.

I definitely think that Behrend did a great job at preparing me for that, even if though it felt overwhelming at first.

On a lighter note…how did Princeton’s winters compare to Behrend’s?

It was a nice change. Winters got very cold in New Jersey, but there was nowhere near as much snow, which was nice. My least favorite part of winters in Erie was driving in the snow.

You just successfully defended your Ph.D. at Princeton, correct?

Yes. It was a really surreal experience. You spend four or five years working on one specific problem and then it all culminates in writing your thesis and then trying to summarize what feels like your life’s work into a single presentation, which means so much gets left out!

After I was done, everyone was congratulating me and calling me doctor, and I just felt like, wait, I’m the same person I was an hour ago, nothing’s really changed. But, in reality it’s the biggest accomplishment of my life so far. It didn’t really sink in right away. But when it did, it was a great feeling. I’m really proud of the work that I did in graduate school.

So what’s next?

I’ll be working for the Singapore Berkley Research Initiative for Sustainable Energy. It’s a collaborative effort between a few different institutions, including the National University of Singapore and University of California, Berkeley, to research different aspects of sustainable energy with the goal of using solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into fuels. It’s an exciting opportunity!

When will you start there?

Hopefully soon. I’m navigating the visa process right now, so as soon as the Singapore government approves that, I’ll be able to move.

Have you always wanted to work overseas?

No, not at all! The thought had never really crossed my mind, but in graduate school I was given the opportunity to make friends with people from all over the world. Several of them are prolific world travelers and they had a big influence on me. It’s really exciting to travel and see the world, and it really opens your eyes to different cultures and ways of life. It helps you to grow as a person and I’m excited for more of those types of experiences.

What are your long-range career goals?

I’d like to go into industrial research and development. Graduate school is great because you’re adding to the body of knowledge in your field, but in an academic environment, you rarely get to see the direct fruits of your labor. I’m interested in industry because I think I’ll get more of a sense of finality to projects because there will always a specific product in mind.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to thank everyone who has helped me to get where I am today: My parents for teaching me the importance of education and helping me get through college, the faculty members at Behrend—especially in the Chemistry and Math departments—who were all wonderful teachers and mentors, and my colleagues throughout graduate school.

Alumnus Named Top Innovator by MIT Technology Review

Humans have forty-three muscles in their face that can be combined to create 10,000 unique expressions. Imagine programming a computer to interpret all of them. And, when you’re done with that, add in the other factors that effect social interaction – body language, culture, gender, and more.

Impossible?

That’s a word that doesn’t compute for Dr. Ehsan Hoque ’04, a Penn State Behrend Computer Engineering graduate who was recently featured in MIT Technology Review as one of the top 35 innovators under the age of 35. He was recognized for developing two computer technologies— MACH (My Automated Conversation coach) and ROCspeak—that train people to excel in social settings.

ehsan-credit-adam-fenster

Dr. Ehsan Hoque ’04, a Penn State Behrend Computer Engineering graduate, innovator and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester. Photo credit: Adam Fenster

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Hoque has been turning “impossible” situations into opportunities since his undergraduate days at Behrend.

“A scheduling mix-up required me to take some courses out of order and without having had the recommended prerequisites,” he said. “I really struggled, but it was a good thing because it made me resilient.”

His resiliency was put to the test in his final year at Behrend when his team took on a senior design project that they weren’t sure could be done. Not only did the team complete the project—a robot that could see, hear, and recognize people—but they also won the “Best Design” award.

So when Hoque was a doctoral student at MIT presenting his work on a computer program capable of gauging a user’s mood, and was challenged to expand it, he didn’t balk.

Challenge accepted

“After demonstrating my research at a workshop, a gentleman approached me and said he was very awkward in social situations and wondered if my technology could be used to create some sort of automated program that he could use at home to practice making eye contact and improve his social skills,” Hoque recalled.

As the primary caretaker of his brother who has Down Syndrome, Hoque had witnessed first-hand how difficult social interactions can be for some people. He also suspected that social stigma and shame kept many from seeking help.

“A computer, however, is completely objective, standardized, and non-judgmental,” he said. “It’s a safe place for people with social anxiety or awkwardness to practice and learn.”

Hoque, now an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester, started working on MACH, a system for people to practice social interactions in face-to-face scenarios with a 3D character that can see, hear, and make its own decisions in real time.

Conversations with computers

In MACH, a virtual businesswoman has been programed to recognize the user’s expressions and statements. She can also nod, smile, and even ask questions. At the end of the conversation, the businesswoman gives users feedback about their interpersonal performance, including body language, intonation, and eye contact.

The program went live in 2015 and, to date, more than 20,000 people have used it to improve their social skills. Users can choose to share their results for research purposes and more than half have done so. Hoque uses the data to further improve the program.

“Building the original platform was easy, but then you have to add in all the insights,” he said. “That never really ends. It is an ongoing, evolving process.”

Hoque also designed a pared-down mobile version, Rocspeak, free for anyone with Internet access to use. There’s no animated character; instead, it records video and sends you a report on various aspects of your performance, such as speed of speech, pitch, intensity of smiles, and how often you repeat wrds.

Applied science

Applications for MACH and Rocspeak have gone far beyond the original intended audience. Hoque said his tool has been used by all kinds of people, including customer service representatives, nervous students with looming classroom presentations, and individuals simply preparing for a big date or a job interview. It can also help those who have social anxiety or challenges, such as those with Asperger’s.

Hoque, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Memphis and a Ph.D. from MIT, said he enjoys being able to use his skills to make a real-world impact.

“I have these advanced degrees and technical skills and, if I can use those to solve problems for people, then it is knowledge and time well spent,” he said.

Blast from the past

Check out Hoque’s Penn State Behrend senior project presentation: VisionPSU, a human interactive robot (below).

ehsan-at-psubehrend

Also, peruse these vintage photos, where you may recognize some School of Engineering faculty members, including Dr. Ralph Ford, now Penn State Behrend’s chancellor.

Excellence runs in Schupp family, twice chosen to Marshal

By Christine Palattella
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Kelsey Schupp (3)

Student Marshal Kelsey Schupp

On Friday night, Student Marshal Kelsey Schupp ’16 will lead her fellow Black School of Business commencement candidates into Erie Insurance Arena just as her sister, Brooke ʼ14, did two years ago.

Only five Student Marshals are chosen for a commencement ceremony, one representing each of Penn State Behrend’s four academic schools plus an Honors candidate to lead the college’s Schreyer Scholars. To recognize their outstanding academic achievements, Student Marshals are given the honor of carrying the banners that precede each of the five candidate groups onto the arena floor.

Kelsey will receive concurrent degrees in Accounting and Finance and soon will begin working as a proposal analyst associate at Lockheed Martin’s Missile and Fire Control division in Orlando. Brooke joined GE Transportation after graduating with a degree in Interdisciplinary Business with Engineering Studies; this fall she completes her fourth and final rotation in GE’s Operations Management Leadership Program.

Was being named Marshal a goal for you, Kelsey?

I wouldn’t necessarily say being Marshal was a specific goal I made, but I knew there was a good chance of it happening because my personal goal was graduating with a cumulative 4.0 GPA.

Was Brooke an inspiration? Are you two competitive?

Brooke graduated with a 4.0 GPA too. I’ve always wanted to do my very best in school purely for my own satisfaction, but Brooke’s performance at Behrend pushed me to try even harder. She definitely left me some big shoes to fill.

In my junior year I started a game with myself –I decided to see how much more I could take on while maintaining my GPA. This is when I started working at internships during the school year and participating in academic competitions like the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute Research Challenge. I was captain of the team that reached the global semi-finals, ending as the 21st team out of over 1,000 competing.

I think Brooke and I are more competitive with ourselves than each other. But we do sometimes push each other, to make each other a better person, of course.

Looking back, Brooke, what did the Marshal experience mean to you?

Kelsey summarized it right when she said we are more competitive with ourselves than we are with each other. Being a Marshal allowed me to see that my parents had done an amazing job creating self-motivating adults capable of anything we put our minds to – even a 4.0 in college – a trait I hope I can someday pass on to those around me.

Brooke Schupp (2)

Brooke Schupp, Kelsey’s sister and a 2014 Marshal

How do you feel about Kelsey following in your footsteps?

In college I mainly focused on my coursework, working to prove to myself that a 4.0 wasn’t impossible. Kelsey took that to the next level by being extremely active in other groups and competitions, for example taking her team to Nationals for the CFA Institute Research Challenge competition! The dedication, time management, and leadership she was able to muster over her senior year is beyond incredible to me and proof that my little sister isn’t so little anymore.

Penn State Behrend’s 2016 spring commencement will be held on Friday, May 6, in Erie Insurance Arena, 809 French St. The ceremony begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be streamed live at behrend.psu.edu.

Marketing alum finds calling with Make-A-Wish Foundation

Penn State Behrend alumna Melissa Lichtinger works as online communication manager for Make-A-Wish International but also volunteers for the organization. The first wish she granted was for Lucas, who suffers from lung disease, cerebral palsy and can only communicate through non-verbal expression. A splash pad was installed in his backyard, so he would be able to play safely in water.

Penn State Behrend alumna Melissa Lichtinger works as online communication manager for Make-A-Wish International but also volunteers for the organization. The first wish she granted was for Lucas, who suffers from lung disease, cerebral palsy and can only communicate through non-verbal expression. A splash pad was installed in his backyard, so he would be able to play safely in water.

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Melissa-Lichtinger_1Melissa Lichtinger no longer worries about life’s everyday stresses. Those concerns went away after she started to work for Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Whenever life gets tough, I’ll just watch a wish story. It always instills positivity, and you realize that your day-to-day struggles are nothing compared to what these kids go through,” the 2013 Penn State Behrend graduate said.

Lichtinger, who earned degrees in marketing and international business, works as online communications manager for Make-A-Wish International, headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. Every day, the Erie native works to manage the organization’s social media and website presence while being attentive to the needs of the 50 different countries in which Make-A-Wish operates.

Her commitment to the nonprofit’s mission is nothing new. While in college, Lichtinger got involved with Make-A-Wish thanks to the urging of her aunt, who was a volunteer, and interned in the organization’s Erie office.

“At my internship, I did a lot of the wish story writing, so it really connected me to the mission, and I had the chance to meet a lot of wish kids. It really changed my life and made me realize I wanted to work in this sector,” she said.

Lichtinger happened to be in luck. Following her college graduation, she was hired as a digital production coordinator for Make-A-Wish America before being promoted to digital production specialist. She was promoted to her current position last June.

However, while she enjoyed her work, something was missing. At the corporate office, Lichtinger often helps with managing the global brand, sponsorships and high-level tasks. It was time to get back to basics.

“I reached out to the local office here in Arizona, so I could start the process of (volunteering) and granting wishes. It was important to get back to the mission, and remind myself of why I wanted to get involved to begin with,” she said.

Her first wish granted was for Lucas, who suffers from lung disease, cerebral palsy and can only communicate through non-verbal expression. After speaking with his mother, Lichtinger learned that Lucas loves playing in the water, but it’s difficult for him to do so because he cannot be in the water without someone holding his head up.

His family and Lichtinger ultimately decided to install a splash pad in the family’s backyard for Lucas. Commonly seen in public parks, splash pads eliminate the risks of pools while still providing plenty of water fun as ground nozzles spray water upwards.

When he was introduced to the pad, Lucas immediately started to laugh and giggle, and Lichtinger was reminded why the Make-A-Wish cause resonates with her so much.

“You get to take a kid who doesn’t get to be a kid right now, and you get to help them imagine something that they never thought was possible. You get to see the transformation where they become a little kid again,” she said.

Lichtinger is currently in the process of planning an additional two wishes. She knows her career path may one day change, but she wants to continue to make a difference in the nonprofit sector.

She also remains very thankful for all the knowledge she gained from her time at Behrend.

“I am a driven person, but Behrend instilled all of the steps of how to get there while giving me an opportunity to work with professors who really care about your success. My international business degree and the projects I worked on is what really helped me get this job,” she said. “I still talk to my marketing professors today, and they still help me if I have questions or need advice. They’re my mentors, not just for those four years, but they’re my mentors through life.”

Behrend alumni lead textbook company’s transition to digital age

Totzke, Dauber Berlin (32)

Behrend alumni Erika Dauber Berlin and Matthew Totzke are challenged with running a textbook company, Larson Texts, in the 21st century.

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

In an age dominated by tablets and tweets, the prospect of running a textbook company might seem daunting. There’s nothing “textbook” about the operations of Larson Texts, however.

Technology has changed the game, but the Erie-based company has continued to adapt.

“The physical book is still valuable, but the way you get your hands on it is much different,” says Matthew Totzke, CEO of Larson Texts and a Penn State Behrend mathematics alumnus. “The technology now allows us to do a much better job of enhancing the learning experience.”

Larson Texts was founded more than 30 years ago by Ron Larson, then a professor of mathematics, now emeritus at Penn State Behrend. At the time, Larson was responding to what he saw as the need for more student-friendly math textbooks.

Today, the company produces math textbooks for sixth grade through college-level calculus classes that are used by more than five million students each year. Larson has also published textbooks for such well-known educational publishers as Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and W. H. Freeman and also publishes its own textbooks through Big Ideas Learning and AndYou.com.

Publishing a book, involves more than producing a physical textbook. With every college-level textbook that Larson Texts creates, the company also develops a fully-responsive companion website for all platforms: desktops, tablets and smartphones.

“We’re able to access so much more information than ever before. Now, we can really blend a great print book with strong digital content,” Totzke says.

That type of digital content featured on the companion sites includes worked-out proofs, instructional videos, rotatable graphs and downloadable data. All of these tools are great reference materials for students.

“There’s a lot of modeling in mathematics that you just can’t show on a print page,” Totzke says. “We put together interactive explorations that bring three-dimensional concepts to a workable medium.”

Being ahead of the digital curve is no new development for Larson. In 2001, the company created the website CalcChat as a tool that students could use to double check answers to questions posed in textbook exercises.

The site has since been supplemented by a tutor component and corresponding Twitter and Facebook accounts where students can talk with an actual tutor if they are struggling with a particular problem. Larson Texts monitors the tutor conversations as a way to gain feedback and develop solutions in areas in which students are continually struggling. According to Totzke, an estimated six million upper-level high school and college students have used the CalcChat service since 2010.

Through Big Ideas Learning, Larson publishes its own primary-school level books, a market segment the company expects to see expand as schools catch up to colleges and universities in terms of technology.

“Schools are beginning to have the infrastructure to embrace some of this technology,” says Erika Dauber Berlin, vice president of technology at Larson Texts and a Penn State Behrend communication & media alumna. “We have to draw inspiration from a lot of different areas and then anticipate how we’ll meet teachers’ needs into the future.”

It may not be the “textbook” method for creating educational publications, but Totzke would not have it any other way.

“We consider this to be an opportunity,” he says. “We’re able to deliver high-quality educational materials like we’ve never done before.”