Sometimes timing really is everything.
Just ask Jordan Egner-Schnitzler, Brynn Dallmann, Nick Reding and Aaron Deacon, who in May will become the first Blugolds to graduate from UW-Eau Claire with degrees in materials science and engineering.
“We are really glad to have such a high-caliber group of students represent MSE at UW-Eau Claire as they begin their careers,” says Dr. Matt Jewel, associate professor of materials science and engineering. “We know they’re going to do great things and we’re excited to see them become members of the engineering profession.”
All four already were Blugolds when UW-Eau Claire launched its MSE degree program in 2016, but they all changed their majors after realizing how well the MSE program aligns with their interests and goals.
As they prepare to graduate, they say the program exceeded their expectations thanks to challenging coursework, access to state-of-the-art equipment, real-world experiences through projects and internships, and faculty who were exceptional teachers and mentors.
Classes are small, faculty give them plenty of one-on-one attention, and innovative learning experiences are designed to meet the needs of individual students, the new grads say.
“By the time we reached our senior-level courses, our knowledge, or our ‘toolbox’ for problem solving, was so vast that the courses weren't as difficult as they appear on paper,” Dallmann says. “The classes were challenging, but the faculty prepared us very, very well.”
As a result, Dallmann and her fellow MSE graduates say they’re confident they are graduating with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to be successful in the growing field of materials science and engineering.
Preparing grads to meet workforce needs
UW-Eau Claire’s MSE program applies the tools of basic science with an engineering component that seeks to understand the behavior of materials, their development and applications to modern technologies.
In other words, MSE is the "science of stuff."
Many materials science and engineering graduates find jobs in industry or research labs, working to improve or create the “stuff” that people use in their daily lives, which could include everything from more powerful electronics to lighter but stronger golf clubs.
UW-Eau Claire’s MSE program was designed to give students the technical skills and tools they need to work in a modern engineering environment, but also to dovetail with UW-Eau Claire’s strong liberal education core, Jewell says.
As a result, MSE graduates have the knowledge but also the interpersonal skills employers say are important to them.
“The students we graduate are ready to hit the ground running on day one, both in terms of their technical skills but also their writing, communication and problem-solving abilities,” Jewell says.
As he begins looking for his first professional engineering job, Reding, a native of Maple Grove, Minnesota, says he is confident that he has what he needs to be successful.
“We covered all of the aspects of an industrial job in engineering from group work to collaboration with a client, micro and macro-processing methods, and data acquisition and analysis,” Reding says. “The university also provided opportunities to improve my skills in things like technical writing, resume building and mock interviews, which also will help ensure success beyond the classroom.”
Partnerships with business and industry
For more than a decade, UW-Eau Claire’s Materials Science and Engineering Center has partnered with local industry, providing testing and research support to private companies for product development, while also creating internship and career opportunities for students.
Those long-established partnerships help MSE faculty work with local industry to ensure that UW-Eau Claire’s MSE graduates are prepared to meet regional workforce needs, Jewell says.
“The great thing about designing a new program from the ground up is that we can be responsive to the needs of employers here in western Wisconsin, and also to the broader materials engineering community, as we structure our curriculum and introduce experiences to help students become mature critical thinkers and problem solvers,” Jewell says.
The array of sophisticated instrumentation Blugolds use to help their industry partners solve materials-related engineering challenges gives students experiences working with equipment not typically available to students at most universities.
That experience, the new graduates say, already is helping them stand out as they look for jobs.
“We’re exposed to testing instruments and equipment that are widely used in industry, but not often available to undergraduate students,” says Egner-Schnitzler, a native of Plover. “During classes, we use the equipment to solve proposed problems. The professors are very involved and always willing to help. The encouraging environment promotes success and innovation.”
Reding says using the industrial-grade equipment reinforces lessons they learn in their classrooms.
“The use of the high-tech labs is a good way to apply what we learn in the classroom to an industrial experience,” Reding says. “This is especially true in the senior capstone projects, where we work with an outside client and use the equipment to research new materials or investigate problems with these materials.”
The student connections with area industries through capstone projects, internships and other outside-the-classroom experiences also are helping students identify potential career paths, they say.
For example, Deacon says an internship at Hutchinson Technology Industries in Eau Claire helped him see potential opportunities for him within the manufacturing sector.
“Hutchinson produces microelectronic circuits and it opened my mind to working in a manufacturing setting,” Deacon says. “It was great working with engineers to make sure the products were being produced to their full potential.”
The varied experiences she’s had through the MSE program — including an internship, research with faculty and community service projects — will help her find a job that matches her skills and interests, Egner-Schnitzler says.
“Doing research strengthened my group communication, presentation, technical and problem-solving skills,” Egner-Schnitzler says. “It allowed me to apply concepts I learned in the classroom to real-world problems. From my internship, I have experience working in an industry setting and working directly with engineers. I've use software programs and tools commonly used in industry.
“I can talk about all those things when applying for jobs.”
Dallmann agrees, noting that the experiences she had through her internship alone is helping to make her a top candidate in many job searches.
Finding their path
All four of the first MSE graduates came to UW-Eau Claire with an interest in the sciences, but none of them had found exactly the right major before the university began offering its MSE degree program.
“About halfway through my first year of school I felt stuck,” says Dallmann, a native of Appleton. “I was majoring in something I didn't want to do for the rest of my life, and the types of jobs I was interested in all required engineering degrees. I talked to multiple departments including math, chemistry and physics. Although I liked what they all had to offer, none of them felt quite right.”
Fortunately, Dallmann met a fellow Blugold who introduced her to the field of materials science.
The classes and potential jobs in the field were interesting, so she switched her major to materials science, Dallmann says.
When her new advisor told her UW-Eau Claire was launching a materials science and engineering degree, she changed her major again.
“Once I heard about what the new major would entail, and the opportunities it could potentially lead to, I immediately switched,” Dallmann says.
For Egner-Schnitzler, the major was appealing because it brings together chemistry, physics and engineering.
“It ties together all of my interests and it also requires problem-solving,” Egner-Schnitzer says.
When they came to UW-Eau Claire, both Deacon and Reding were considering the physics dual degree program, where students study at UW-Eau Claire for two years and then transfer to engineering programs at either UW-Madison or the University of Minnesota.
However, when the time came to transfer, neither of them wanted to leave UW-Eau Claire.
“At the time, the MSE major was rolling out and it was appealing to me because of the engineering portion of the program as well as the Materials Science Center,” says Deacon, a Green Bay native whose parents also are UW-Eau Claire graduates. “They have a lot of interesting instruments that we got to learn about and run by ourselves to complete projects, and that appealed to me.”
Reding says the MSE program incorporates everything he was looking for in a major.
“I always enjoyed physics because it helps us understand why things work the way they do, but MSE dives even further into this concept in understanding these properties at even smaller scales, like the grain structure of metals.”
Women in engineering
That two of UW-Eau Claire’s first four MSE graduates are women is especially exciting given the need for more diversity within the engineering profession, Dallmann and Egner-Schnitzler say.
“I always thought our experience here was unique because there was a 50-50 ratio of women-to-men in our classes,” Dallmann says. “I’ve read constantly that the most successful companies have the most diversity. Especially in engineering, being a woman is so important.”
Egner-Schnitzler agrees, adding that diversity within an industry gives rise to a fuller range of perspectives and ideas.
It’s important, she says, that girls have role models who will encourage them to embrace their interests in STEM fields.
Dallmann and Egner-Schnitzler — who both became interested in STEM fields at young ages — say they have tried to be those role models and to inspire more girls to think about careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“With Jordan, I’ve participated in many educational outreach activities in area schools, and we are the heads of the Materials Research Society,” Dallmann says of their efforts to encourage girls' interest in STEM fields. “Through these outreach activities, I’m coming full circle and I’m hoping that I’m giving young girls the same interest that I’d received from others.”
Photo caption: This spring (from left) Nick Reding, Aaron Deacon, Jordan Egner-Schnitzler and Brynn Dallmann will be the first Blugolds graduating from UW-Eau Claire’s materials science and engineering program.