Freshmen build community in engineering workshops

Mechanical engineering senior Christian Clifton (right), one of the student leaders of the Excelling in Engineering workshops, oversees freshman engineering students as they tackle the Production Line Challenge.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Their mission, which they chose to accept: They're part of a factory production line and have to produce as many widgets as they can in one minute. If they drop a widget, it will be declared defective. Everyone’s hands must come in contact with the widget, and the first person who touches the widget also must be the last person to touch it.


Run No. 1: The team moved 34 widgets through the system, with one defect, for a total of 33 successfully produced widgets.

“You have one minute to plan your next run,” barked Joel Conrad, the floor boss.

Run No. 2 resulted in 24 widgets making it down the line, sadly, with four defects.

“Guys, what happened? Our output decreased by 13,” Conrad said as he tried to inspire the troops with some heart-pumping tunes: “The Final Countdown” by Europe, “Eye of the Tiger” from the “Rocky” films and “Let It Go” from “Frozen.”

Then a quick change of plans.

Students had one minute to rant about topics ranging from siblings to pockets.

Instead of passing the widget around from worker to worker standing in a circle formation, “why don’t we just have our hands in a line so it (the widget) just hits our hands on the way down?”


Of 46 widgets blazing their way down the line, 39 made it to the end.

But the victory was short-lived.

Christian Clifton, from Widget Factory Corporate, passed on the bad news: “There are worries about arthritis and carpel tunnel. We need you guys to only use one hand right now.”

It was one of the many changeups hurled at the “workers” – actually Grand Canyon University freshman engineering students – as they tackled the Production Line Challenge in the Excelling in Engineering workshops.

“The purpose of these workshops is really to help the freshman engineering class prepare for their life as an engineering student and as a future engineer – and kind of to show them some of the skills they’re not necessarily going to learn in the classroom, but help them excel in the classroom and excel in life,” said Conrad, who, when he’s not the Widget Factory floor boss, is a senior mechanical engineering major in the Honors College and is one of the student leaders of Excelling in Engineering.

GCU's Strategic Employer Initiatives & Internships department, led by Haley Fagerlie, introduced the initiative three years ago to “help provide supplemental academic and career development and support to freshmen as they get started in their challenging engineering majors,” said Marette Hahn, Institutional Effectiveness student success specialist assigned to the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.

What’s special about Excelling in Engineering is that it is designed and run by engineering students and, as such, Hahn said the workshops help foster a sense of community between the freshman participants and the sophomore-, junior- or senior-level student leaders.

The purpose of the Production Line Challenge was to create stress in the “factory,” as workers were pushed to work under deadline pressures and had to adjust to last-minute changes.

Minimizing stress means coming up with a plan, said Clifton, a senior mechanical engineering major and student worker in the Lopes Lab.

“How do you plan, because the reality is you will not stop stress,” he said. “There’s no way to do that. Professors will change due dates. But if you have a plan, you can keep it from taking over.

“Your junior/senior year, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll be fighting for air – plan, have a schedule. It’ll make life so much easier.”

Freshman engineering students learned to deal deadlines and last-minute changes in the Production Line Challenge, which segued into a talk about stress.

Clifton also advised the freshman students to have fun.

“You have to be a person. You can’t just be a student for four years,” said Clifton, who said he has to plan date nights with his wife. “What’s your out?” he asked, as students rattled off the ways they liked to decompress: running, playing video games or rock climbing.

Stress was just one themes of the six workshop sessions.

At a previous workshop, students who attended received tips on how to build their resumes, from using power words, such as “initiate” and “coordinate,” to knowing what words NOT to use on a resume, such as “stuff.”

Another tip: Don’t list accomplishments on your resume that are more than five years old.

“Unless it’s amazingly big, unless you invented a heart that saved 50 million lives – keep that on your resume,” Clifton said with a laugh.

In another workshop, students sharpened their public speaking and presentation skills through an activity dubbed, “Don’t Get Me Started.”

Students had to rant for one minute on a variety of topics, such as “Arizonans driving in the rain,” “Roommates,” “Siblings” and, oddly enough, “Pockets.”

Electrical engineering freshman Philip Varkey (right) attended several Excelling in Engineering sessions, designed to cover topics from public speaking to handling stress and resume building.

“Look down, what is the first thing you see? POCKETS!” one of workshop attendees said. “For girls, we don’t have that (pockets)” as much as boys, she ranted as she motioned to her leggings and added how, if you do have a back pocket, how horrible it is to store your cell phone there: “We sit on them; it’s not nice.”

It’s important to speak well and with confidence, Conrad said, because despite the stereotype of engineers sitting in a cubicle somewhere and not being social, “you have to talk to people.”

Workshop student leader Gabriela Calhoun, a biomedical engineering major in the Honors College, told attendees that it’s best to stick to key points. It makes it easier to segue from one idea to the next, she said, and is a technique she used in a 10-minute presentation of her research project, no note cards allowed.

Students also put together an “elevator pitch” – a clear, brief message or commercial about themselves to present to potential employers.

Electrical engineering freshman Philip Varkey said the workshops have taught him team building.

“It also helped me think about different ideas, like stress, or how to build a resume properly, those sorts of ideas.”

Thien Nguyen, a senior hospitality major and freshman engineering major, said she decided to spend time in Excelling in Engineering “because I wanted to know if it would help me in my engineering program – see if it’s going to bring me any benefits and connections, and so far it does. So far, I’m really enjoying it.”

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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