Crossing Disciplines Pays Off

First-year business student and senior engineering major win short story contest

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By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Look, $100 is $100, OK? So when Senior Mechanical Engineering student Sam Cabot saw the opportunity to earn some cold hard cash (er, Visa card) by whipping up a little story about brunch for Penn State’s University Libraries Short Edition short story dispensers, he was on it like, well, syrup on French toast, if we’re going to stick with the brunch theme here.

It was that delicious hybrid morning meal that students, faculty, and staff were invited to write about for a chance to win money, bragging rights, and a spot in the Libraries’ short story dispensers. There are ten of them spread out among seven University locations, including Behrend’s Lilley Library. With the press of a button, the dispenser prints out a short story that users can take with them to enjoy when they have one to five minutes to spare.

Four “Brunchin’ Around” contest winners were chosen recently by the Short Stories all-student editorial team and two of the authors—Cabot and Isaac Barringer—are Penn State Behrend students.

Barringer, a first-year Finance and Accounting dual major, wrote “The Daffodil House,” about a couple found in their yellow house covered in flies and bellied up to what turned out to be their last meal—brunch, of course, “for the Connors were of a practical stock and believed that breakfast was more efficient if it included lunch as well.”

Cabot, who writes under the pen name Johann Lecker for no particular reason other than the fact that he likes the name (“Lecker” means delicious in German), wrote “To Brunch?” in which the main character finds himself on a mountain in Brasher State Forest in upstate New York trying to make it to Sunday brunch at his grandmother’s house.

“Basically, it’s about someone who tries to remedy an uncomfortable situation, then abandons it altogether, for better or worse,” Cabot said.

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Sam Cabot

Cabot said he entered the contest not only for the potential prize money but for fun and the chance to challenge himself.

“From what I have noticed, engineering students enjoy creative activities as much as any other students, but internships and course load limit the amount of time they can devote to other things,” Cabot said. “Most of the writing that engineers must make time to do is formal and impersonal, so that may be why there’s a stereotype that they are not creative writers.”

Like most authors, Cabot didn’t have a story outlined in his head. Rather, he had a few ideas to start with and the story emerged from there. It’s purely fictional. Cabot has never been anywhere near Brasher State Park, and his grandma didn’t host monthly family brunches.

Asked if it’s unusual that a business major and an engineering major would win a writing contest, Cabot cites the value and of cross-disciplinary learning, which can be beneficial to students in any major.

“It’s easy to grow absorbed in disciplines, like engineering, that are extremely career-focused and require huge amounts of time spent on very specific tasks,” he said. “Adding courses in history or psychology or any of the humanities can provide a healthy balance. The knowledge gained from an occasional hour spent studying the humanities can be as relevant in the real world as the knowledge gained during any of the last eight or ten hours spent sizing a planetary gear train or debugging a C++ program. They both have value.”

But, Cabot said, the ultimate reward for him in exploring the humanities is finding something new and interesting to scratch his creative itch and expand his skills beyond the lab.

You can find links to Cabot and Barringer’s stories as well as the other winners and honorable mention entries here.

Darwin, Sharks, and Cake (Oh, my!)

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February 12 event at Penn State Behrend celebrates Darwin and his Theory of Evolution

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

One of nature’s greatest success stories is one of its most fearsome creatures. Look no further than the top of the oceanic food chain– sharks—for the ultimate lesson in evolutionary survival.

“Sharks have a fossil record that extends back more than 420 million years,” said Dr. Todd Cook, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Behrend, who has done extensive research work on sharks and rays from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. “As a group, they have been able to survive several mass extinctions and events that have wiped out countless terrestrial and marine species.”

Learn how these predators have adapted and evolved on Wed., Feb. 12 when Penn State Behrend’s School of Science hosts Darwin Day, an international celebration of the life and work of Charles Darwin.

“Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by means of natural selection is the central tenet that unites all areas of biology,” Cook said. “This day recognizes his immeasurable contribution to science, but especially to the natural sciences.”

Don’t be fooled by the word “theory,” Cook cautions.

“Common everyday use of the word ‘theory’ would imply that it’s simply an idea or a guess,” Cook said. “But Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a well-substantiated explanation for natural phenomena that is supported by vast amounts of evidence. It has been, and continues to be, extensively scrutinized, and it holds up as a solid scientific theory.” 

The public is invited to celebrate Darwin at Behrend from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., beginning with “Life: A Cosmic Story” at 6:00 p.m. in Yahn Planetarium, followed by a presentation “The Evolutionary History of Sharks” by Cook in Room 101 of Otto Behrend Science Building.

The event is free, open to the public, and geared toward those of all ages. After Cook’s lecture, attendees are invited to stay for a celebratory piece of cake.

The Art of Science: Student/faculty artwork enhances science building

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager at Penn State Behrend

Science and the arts might seem to be very different disciplines, but the scientific method and the creative process are quite similar; inquiry is at the heart of each.

“People sometimes think science is about memorizing facts, but it’s really about making discoveries and wringing answers out of nature,” said Dr. Pam Silver, associate dean for academic affairs and distinguished professor of biology. “When you have a scientific question, it takes a lot of creativity to find the answer to it.”

Scientists are, by nature, creative individuals and the School of Science has recently added two works of art that visibly illustrate that.

Ties that bind

A colorful quilt, titled “A Way of Knowing,” was created by Silver and hangs in Hammermill Hall. Each color in the quilt represents a scientific discipline taught at Behrend—biology, chemistry, environmental science, nursing, physics, and mathematics and mathematics education. A spiral in the quilt represents the net movement of scientific discovery from observation to hypothesis to testing to understanding.

Furthermore, the underlying geometric design “symbolizes that the building blocks of science are not individual disciplines, but rather the discoveries to be made by merging diverse ideas, points of view, and approaches to form a strong and unified way of knowing with the goals of wisdom and the power to enact that wisdom,” Silver said.

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“A Way of Knowing,” by Dr. Pam Silver, associate dean for academic affairs and distinguished professor of biology, hangs near the stairwell in Hammermill Hall. 

Math in flight

High overhead at the entrance of Roche Hall, is another work of art—a stage-5 Sierpinski tetrahedron that models a fractal with infinite triangles—created by the School of Science Math Club under the direction of club president Thomas Galvin  and Dr. Joe Previte, associate professor of mathematics.

“A fractal is a self-similar structure with recurring patterns at progressively smaller scales,” Previte said. “Fractals are useful in modeling natural structures such as plants, coastlines, or snowflakes.”

Some natural objects appear to be completely random in shape, but there is an underlying pattern that determines how these shapes are formed and what they will look like, according to Previte. Mathematics can help us to better understand the shapes of natural objects, which has applications in medicine, biology, geology, and meteorology.

Students built the fractal using Zometool construction parts. It consists of 2,050 white balls and 6,144 red and blue struts. Learn more about fractals at www.mathigon.org/world/Fractals

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A stage-5 Sierpinski tetrahedron created by the School of Science Math Club hangs above the entrance to Roche Hall. 

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Student garden interns spend summer sowing seeds of sustainability

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager at Penn State Behrend

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Cuddling chickens is not an activity you would expect at Erie’s Blues & Jazz Festival, an annual weekend-long summer music concert in Frontier Park. But two Penn State Behrend students, Jessie Johnson and Pearl Patterson, knew that a handful of hens at this popular event would be a great way to draw attention to their efforts to overturn a law against keeping chickens in the City of Erie.

Johnson and Patterson are spearheading the operation through Chicks4Erie, an online community they formed through Instagram and Facebook to spread the word about urban poultry-keeping.

“Allowing Erie residents to legally keep chickens will bring numerous positive benefits, including improving the environment through the reduction of pests like ticks and providing organic soil amendments for gardeners,” according to the Chicks4Erie mission statement written by Johnson and Patterson, both Student Garden interns at Behrend. “It will also increase self-sufficiency and food security through the production of eggs and contribute to the city’s encouraging overall trend toward urban agriculture.”

The Chicks4Erie initiative is just one of several projects that three Behrend students—Johnson, Patterson and Aydin Mitchell— have been hard at work on this summer as interns for the University’s Sustainable Food Systems Program.

The program, which launched at University Park three years ago, was expanded to Penn State Behrend in 2018 because of food systems already in place on campus. Among these is the student garden, started by the Greener Behrend student organization in 2016. Greener Behrend president, Celeste Makay, a senior Environmental Science major, has continued to help with the garden for the last two years.

Student Garden interns are responsible for the gardens on Behrend’s campus, but their work reaches far beyond weeding and watering.

“They run the campus CSA (community supported agriculture) program that we started, including generating a newsletter and recipes for members, supporting the Erie schools by serving as coordinators of the Jefferson Elementary School garden, and doing outreach programs throughout the district,” said Katie Chriest, sustainable food systems program coordinator for Commonwealth campuses.  “They also are active members of Erie’s Food Policy Advisory Council, and they are finetuning plans for a new campus club that will debut this fall,”

But, that’s not all. The student interns also host educational activities at Behrend for students from Bethesda Trinity Center and the Neighborhood Art House, staff an informational table at the Little Italy Farmers’ Market in Erie, and research expansion efforts for campus garden space and other sustainable food systems initiatives.

Mitchell, a senior Environmental Science major, didn’t have much gardening experience before this summer, but said he has learned a lot along the way. Not all of it is rooted in the ground, but in other vital connections.

“I thought I’d just be taking care of the gardens, but it turned out to be so much more than that,” said Mitchell, who oversees the Jefferson gardens and serves as the manager of education and outreach for the Student Garden intern program. “It’s really about making connections with people in the community and helping them see how vital sustainable food systems are and how and why they should care.”

Which brings us back to the Erie Blues & Jazz Festival’s Sustainability Village where Patterson and Johnson were so successful at making a case for raising poultry in the city that they quickly ran of petition pages to sign.

“At one point, I asked Jessie, who is just going into her sophomore year, what it feels like to be gaining so much support and enthusiasm for their initiative from residents and community leaders,” Chriest said. “She said she was just amazed that, at such a young age, she could have such an impact on the community around her. I’m not sure there’s a more powerful message we could hope to send to our students than that their work matters and that they can make the world a better, and more sustainable, place.”

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Behrend’s Story in 70 Pieces

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

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What do a dog’s gravestone, a jar of grapes, and golf tees have to do with Penn State Behrend? Find out in the Lilley Library where you can see a new exhibit, History in 70 Pieces, honoring Behrend’s 70th birthday.

Curated by the Jane Ingold, reference and instructional librarian and archivist, the exhibit explores highlights of the past seven decades in the college’s history through a collection of objects, photos, and memorabilia. There are things you might expect to see, such as a student handbook circa 1950, a freshman “dink” (beanie hat worn by first-year students in the late 1940s), and Behrend’s first yearbook, The Cub.

There are surprising items in the display as well, including never-before-seen archival items and objects that are representative of significant moments in the college’s history.

A Starbucks coffee cup may seem an odd thing to find on display, but it represents a social movement sparked by the death of first-year student Alyssa Josephine O’Neil who, before dying unexpectedly from an epileptic seizure, told her mom she wanted to get a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks. After her funeral, her parents unwittingly started a national pay-it-forward campaign by purchasing forty of the drinks and asking the barista to mark the cups with #AJO and give them to the next people who ordered them. Soon, people across the country were buying free lattes for strangers in honor of Alyssa.

“I really wanted to include some newer items, like the #AJO cup, because history is happening every day,” Ingold said. “I also tried to represent as many communities at Behrend as I possibly could, including our international student population, staff members, and other sometimes overlooked groups.”

The exhibit has sparked interest from library visitors, most of whom take time to peer through the glass and absorb a little history.

The item that generates the most attention?

“Definitely Bruno’s headstone,” Ingold said, gesturing to the slab of concrete marked with the birth and death dates of Harriet Behrend’s beloved German shepherd, which is believed to be buried near Wilson Picnic Grove on campus. Harriet is the daughter of Mary Behrend, who donated her family’s Glenhill Farm estate to Penn State in 1948 to establish what became known as Behrend Center. “Everybody loves Bruno,” she said.

The exhibit has inspired some visitors to learn more.

“I’ve had a couple of students ask to borrow Ben Lane’s Book, Behrend Remembered, after seeing a copy of it in the exhibit,” Ingold said. “Many have commented on the exhibit or asked questions.”

If you still have questions, maybe about those golf tees and the bottled grapes, stop by the library to find out how these items are intertwined with Behrend’s history. Handouts explaining each of the seventy pieces in the exhibit are available to take with you and a binder on the table dives deeper into some of the items.

History in 70 Pieces can be found across from the checkout desk in Lilley Library and will be on display through June.

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Networking 101: 12 Tips for Good Connections

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

Student enrolled in the Black School of Business’ new C3W Leadership Program, recently spent an evening learning about networking, then practicing it with some of the Erie area’s most prominent female business and government leaders, including Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper.

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The C3W Leadership Program is a co-curricular certificate that female students can complete over one to two years to prepare for leadership in academic, business, and social situations. Students focus on developing these skills through three pillars (the 3Cs): capability, confidence, and connections.

The program is spearheaded by Ann Scott ’82, ’99 M.B.A., community outreach manager at Erie Insurance and one of the Black school’s Executives in Residence, who worked with faculty members Dr. Diane Parente, Breene professor of management, and Dr. Mary Beth Pinto, professor of marketing, to plan the event and give students a great opportunity to make important connections.

Before they began rubbing elbows, Pinto gave the students some tips for successful networking. Here are a dozen of her most helpful hints that would be useful for any young professional:

  1. Make eye contact, but not too much.
  2. Have a firm handshake, but not a death grip.
  3. Authenticity is everything. Be professional, but be you.
  4. Deal with the person in front of you, not the title. Don’t be intimidated by a contact who is high on the corporate ladder, just think of them as another person to connect with.
  5. If you’re wearing a nametag, put it on your right side so that when you shake hands, the person your shaking hands with can easily read your name.
  6. Be aware of your nonverbal communication and the messages your body stance and facial expressions are sending.
  7. Listen! Don’t just talk or think about what to say next, but truly listen to the person your speaking with. Allow them to do more of the talking.
  8. When you leave the conversation, find a way to show that you were listening. Something like, “It was nice to meet you and I’ll be sure to check out some of those concerts on the Bayfront.”
  9. Have a positive attitude. When you meet people, they hear your words, but they pay attention to your attitude. Never talk badly about anyone or anything and refrain from complaining.
  10. Work the room. Don’t just stand in one area or talk to one person all night. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and have conversations with as many people as you can.
  11. Send a thank you note. A personalized email is generally accepted today, but a handwritten note really stands out.
  12. Mind your manners. Hold the door for people, show gratitude for servers, smile at everyone from the coat check clerk to the CEO. Manners matter and they are noticed.

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When You Give an Engineer a Problem….

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

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Valerie Zivkovich and Olivia Dubin, seniors majoring in Plastics Engineering Technology.

Engineers are problem solvers by nature. So it should come as no surprise that when faced with a recycling conundrum, students in Penn State Behrend’s School of Engineering saw an opportunity.

The quandary

China, which is the largest consumer of recycled material from the United States, has significantly reduced the amount and types of material it will accept and introduced strong restrictions on contamination, i.e. trash mixed in with recyclables.

This has forced a wave of changes in the U.S. recycling industry.

“Waste Management has had to adjust the way it recycles materials to ensure those materials pass through numerous quality checks and has also found it necessary to pass on increased costs to customers, including Behrend,” said Randall Geering, senior director of business and operations. “The impact of these changes is being felt everywhere, not just on our campus.”

The bottom line: Recycling is becoming harder and more expensive for consumers and businesses to do and unprofitable for material recovery facilities.

It is not hard to see how this could lead to complete breakdown in the recycling system.

Seeds of change

Recycling and the waste generated by landscaping containers is what led Valerie Zivkovich, a senior from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, to the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program at Penn State Behrend.

“I worked at a vegetable farm in high school, and we were constantly throwing out plastic containers that the plants were in,” Zivkovich said. “We couldn’t reuse them because of potential contaminants in the soil, and I understood that, but I thought there had to be a better way. I wanted to develop a better plastic for agricultural use.”

Zivkovich and her capstone project partner, fellow PLET senior Olivia Dubin, had heard the uproar from the Penn State Behrend community about the prospect of no longer recycling and realized the campus could recycle its own plastic bottles.

At a campus-wide meeting with Waste Management officials, Zivkovich and Dubin presented a proposal to collect, clean, and pelletize bottles into raw material that could then be used to create new products.

“Basically, we’ll collect plastic bottles—primarily PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PP (polypropylene) such as pop bottles, Starbucks cups, etc.—then grind them up into tiny pellets and use or resell them to a vendor,” Zivkovich said.

They worked on their initial plan with Jason Williams, assistant teaching professor of engineering.

“I think this could work because we already have most of the equipment and skills in our plastics department,” Williams said. “We are unique in that we have both a plastics factory and a research facility. This combination of resources makes Behrend a great place to test something like this.”

Waste Management agreed and awarded the students a $3,000 Think Green grant to help get the program going.

“The recycling industry is changing, and it’s going to take projects like this one to help identify different markets for material,” said Erika Deyarmin-Young, public affairs coordinator at Waste Management.

Williams is excited about the possibilities.

“I think this initiative is a valuable teaching tool and a demonstration of how engineers can make things better,” he said. “It will also give us tools we can use to study ways to handle post-consumer waste. I think there is a lot of research opportunity in developing automatic sorting technology and material handling of plastics.”

“As PLET majors, we learn about the impact and importance of recycling,” Dubin said. “We are excited to have come up with a solution that our whole campus could be involved in.”

It takes a village

The first step, Zivkovich said, is spreading the word about what can and can’t be recycled and the importance of rinsing containers before tossing them into the recycling bin.

“There definitely needs to be a campus-wide education campaign,” she said. “We need to teach others how to recycle properly with information sessions, posters, and clear signage on the collection containers.”

“We want students to get involved with every aspect of the recycling process,” Dubin said.

Other priorities include finding more funding and securing workspace. “We need a new grinder and that’s $45,000,” Zivkovich said. “We’re applying for grants to find that funding. As for lab space, we think the Merwin building in Knowledge Park would be ideal.”

Another important part of the equation: volunteers from all four schools.

“We don’t want this to be a project only for PLET or engineering students,” Williams said. “This is an opportunity for students across the college to get involved with these recycling efforts.”

Zivkovich plans to reach out to the college’s sustainability program and Greener Behrend club for help securing volunteers to sort and collect plastics.

“Whatever major you are in, you’ll deal with recycling somewhere—at home, at work, in your community,” Zivkovich said. “This effects all of us whether you work in the industry or not.”