Campus: Fullerton -- July 19, 2007

It’s Sum-Sum-Summertime in the … Classroom

It’s summertime, summertime
Sum, sum, summertime
Summertime, summertime
Sum, sum, summertime…

Well, shut them books and throw ‘em away’
And say goodbye to dull school days
Look alive and change your ways
It’s summertime
—“Summertime, Summertime” by The Jamies

For four weeks this summer, 16 area high school juniors and seniors are shutting out The Jamies’ message instead of shutting their books, in order to pursue a loftier goal: finishing a 12-week Johns Hopkins University beginning engineering course in a month at Cal State Fullerton.

Through Aug. 3, they are taking the Johns-Hopkins “What Is Engineering?” course, a part of that university’s Innovations in Engineering program. The course is offered to area high school students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who show promise in math and science and have maintained at least a 3.0 grade point average and completed required classes.

The course, brought on campus by the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (better known as MESA) program, is designed to achieve a number of things, but especially to dispel misperceptions about engineering and to encourage students to go to college.

The Hopkins classes are being held in Cal State Fullerton’s engineering and computer science complex, where the Cal State Fullerton office of the national MESA program is housed.

The course is intense. The students are attending lectures in the morning and labs in the afternoon. They have a number of projects to complete and work to take home.

“Last year, we had 14 highly motivated high school juniors and seniors,” recalled Russ Hill, a teacher and MESA adviser at Santa Ana’s Villa Fundamental Intermediate School, which is among local schools working with the MESA office at Cal State Fullerton. Others include Anaheim, Century, Costa Mesa, Saddleback, Santa Ana, Savannah and Segerstrom high schools.

This year’s group includes three students from the Tiger Woods Learning Center of Anaheim.

“Most of them studied until very late at night, often 2 a.m. I know this because some would e-mail questions at that hour,” Hill said.

“The culminating activity is the spaghetti bridge-building competition. They have to determine the properties and behavior of the spaghetti under load-bearing stress, determine a design that will provide maximum strength, then execute the design, using only spaghetti and epoxy.

“At the end of the four-week course, they reminded me of how I felt at the end of fraternity hell week: dazed but relieved,” he added. “I think they proved to themselves that they had the discipline, work ethic and ability to accomplish anything they put their minds to.”

The students are given significant incentives: The top two will be offered Cal State Fullerton engineering scholarships. Those who complete the program with at least a B will earn three credit units from Johns Hopkins. But they get more out of the program, no matter their grade, said Vonna Hammerschmitt, the MESA director at Cal State Fullerton.

“There is quite a transformation,” she said. “They arrive here apprehensive, timid. They don’t know each other, typically. Then they are thrown together on projects and must collaborate on problem-solving and overcoming obstacles.

“We see teamwork develop, relationships start. We see them studying together on the bus on the way to school and from. They exchange e-mail addresses so they can continue to communicate after classes,” said Hammerschmitt, then added, grinning, “and they walk in tired from being up late doing homework.”

Then, she said, comes the real payoff for the teachers: “You start to hear them talk to each other. They are knowledgeable about engineering. They are awakened.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they all fall in love with engineering. There is a flip side, too. “Some have said they learned a lot, they had fun, they formed friendships. But now, they also know they for sure don’t want to be an engineer.”

Whatever their decision, she said, almost all of them go back to their schools in the fall and become leaders, especially in MESA.

Raman Unnikrishnan, dean of Cal State Fullerton’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, has often pointed to evidence that high schools in California typically do not introduce students to the engineering professions, let alone give good explanations of engineering. “There are a great number of students who do not choose engineering because they don’t understand the profession,” he said at last year’s Johns Hopkins course. “This summer program provides a rare and highly desirable opportunity because the students not only receive an excellent understanding of the engineering profession in general, but they also receive a good introduction to the branches of engineering.”

“At first, I was reluctant to come,” recalled Taylor Smith of Segerstrom Fundamental High School in Santa Ana. He attended the program last summer, earned an A and was offered a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton when he graduates from high school. He is back this year, but this time as the lab assistant. “When the course syllabus was outlined and we began, I realized how interesting the topic was. By the end of the class, it really hit me how much application I had for this in my life, as well as how much I enjoyed doing the activities and solving the problems presented by the course.

“Before this course, I was inclined to go into a field of science … [Now] as far as my major,” Smith said, “I definitely want to go into a field of engineering, eventually to be in mechanical engineering, aerospace or biomedical engineering.”

Contacts: Vonna Hammerschmitt, MESA, 714-278-3195 or
Russ L. Hudson, Public Affairs, 714-278-4007 or

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