Engineering program gets new name, new opportunities to help students succeed

The successful WSU Engineering Bridge Program, now in its 12th year at the Wayne State University College of Engineering, is crossing a transitional bridge.

The program, which provides educational and counseling support to first- and second-year students with a strong interest in engineering, has been slowly undergoing a name change from Engineering Bridge to EOS. In March, executives from DTE Energy came to the Marvin I. Danto Engineering Development Center to announce $1.4 million grants to the College of Engineering from the DTE Foundation, the majority of which will be earmarked to help fund the rebranded EOS.

Steve Kurmas, DTE Energy president and chief operating officer, College of Engineering alumnus and member of the executive committee for the college’s Board of Visitors, will be the guest speaker.

“EOS is a new name, and we’ve been kind of sitting on it,” says Jeffrey Potoff, professor of chemical engineering and materials science, who has been director of the program for most of its existence. “The current students in the program probably know it as Bridge, but going forward it’s going to be branded as EOS.”

According to Potoff, EOS doesn’t stand for anything.“I am very anti-acronym,” Potoff declares, laughing. “I hate them because they usually lead to ridiculous names being created.”

In mythology, EOS is the Greek goddess of the dawn, who opened the gates of heaven each day for the sun to rise. For the College of Engineering, the name is meant to symbolize the awakening of young minds to the bright possibilities that engineering holds.

When rebranding an existing operation, “Everybody’s got a name, right?” Potoff notes. “One of the things we set out to do was give the program a name that actually means something. So we came up with EOS, which is a real name.”

It means something real to the more than 60 students currently involved in the program, which has the opportunity to provide hands-on experiences in engineering. “I get my TAs and peer mentors together to work on projects and brainstorm ideas,” explains Kristina Lenn, program instructor and College of Engineering lecturer. “We make sure the projects are manageable for the students, that the timeline we give them is workable and get all the materials together. Then I’m in charge of scheduling everything.”

The projects, incorporated as part of Lenn’s Introduction to Design course, differ each semester. “We’ve had groups build bottle rockets and compete with each other, or build a drone that can carry out specific tasks,” says Monica Prasad, a biomedical engineering sophomore from Canton, Michigan, and one of eight peer mentors in the program. “It’s more about focusing on the core of engineering, learning skills that students need for the rest of their engineering careers.”

 “A big part of what we’ve learned over the years is that when students show up, they don’t want to write papers about being an engineer,” says Potoff. They want to do things that are connected to engineering. We’ve developed these hands-on design projects so as soon as they show up on campus they are thinking about engineering, doing engineering in a tangible way, and that has been very popular.”

So popular that in at least one instance, the program convinced an incoming student to change her educational focus.

“I was going to be a film major and was all signed up for my classes,” recalls Brianna Nolasco, a freshman from Westland, Michigan. “Then a few weeks before the semester started, I realized I was still kind of confused about exactly what I wanted to do. I went to an advisor who told me to meet with Casey [Rue, College of Education incoming student/Bridge program advisor]. He explained the Bridge program and I thought, ‘That would be perfect for me.’ We did projects I enjoyed because I got to work with other people and experience what it’s like being part of a team and having to build something. It really helped me realize that engineering is what I want to do.”

Peer mentors are key to the program’s success, providing role models for incoming students as well as one-on-one tutoring and guidance. “The mentors who helped me were there for everything,” says Mohamed Elnour, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Canton who is now a mentor himself. “Not only engineering but also the classes that related to engineering like chemistry and mathematics. They wanted to make sure that the first steps I took toward considering engineering were solid ones.”

Perhaps surprisingly, most of the funds from the DTE Foundation grant will be targeted to assist students with some of their most mundane needs — on-campus parking and lunch, for instance.

“We know from our retention data that if we’re going to lose people, it’s going to be in their first two years,” Potoff observes. “So we wanted to come up with creative ways to retain students. For example, we want them to be on campus more often. If you roll up to the structure and its $7 or $8 a day to park, you start thinking, ‘Do I really want to come to campus today?’ We wanted to take that away, so now they can just show up when it’s best for them.

“If we can keep students on campus longer, we know that, academically, they can do better. So it’s just these little things to kind of keep them moving in the right direction.”

Student feedback regarding the program has been consistently positive. “I know kids who are really proud of their exam scores after we’ve helped them out with the materials and tutoring,” Prasad says. “They come back and say, ‘Hey, I did really well. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad.’ It’s always positive feedback.” Potoff says he and his team meet to discuss the program nearly every day, year-round, seeking to expand and improve its impact. Lenn, a College of Engineering graduate who was once a student and peer mentor under Potoff, says the Bridge program has changed significantly since he took it over. “I left for a few years and came back, and I can see all the ideas he’s had and what he’s wanted to do. The students are so much more engaged now and have a much better idea of what engineering is supposed to be.”

And now it will be known as EOS. “I really like the name,” Lenn says. “It’s pretty cool. It goes back to Greek mythology, and Eos was the transition between the nighttime and the daytime. Plus, as a chemical engineer, EOS also stands for equation of state, which is pretty cool in my book.”

Don’t tell Potoff.