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Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering

Developing engineering identity may be key to student success

Student Researching
A team of SDSU researchers will assess how professional development activities, including leadership training, in engineering can impact student retention, degree completion and academic success. The goal is to increase the diversity of engineering students.

Students who identify themselves as engineers early in their educational careers are more likely to complete their college degrees. That’s the premise behind a new research project aimed at increasing the diversity of engineering students at South Dakota State University.

“When you personally buy into becoming an engineer, your chances of success go up,” said civil and environmental engineering professor Suzette Burckhard. However, how students develop that identity may vary. “Women may develop identity differently compared to men and there may be differences among individual engineering disciplines,” she said.

Burckhard will lead a team of SDSU faculty members who will assess the impact participation in professional development activities, including leadership training, have on student retention, degree completion and academic success. The research is made possible through a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Program.

The S-STEM project will provide four-year scholarships to 20 qualifying students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. These students will then form the researchers’ study groups.

Other team members are Bruce Berdanier, dean of the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering; Robert Fourney, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Stephen Gent, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and Judy Vondruska, a lecturer in the physics department.

“Research on how we can help these students develop an engineering identity adds a unique social science aspect to engineering education,” she said. “What we learn will help engineering educators better prepare underrepresented individuals to succeed in engineering.”

Recruiting study group

Scholarship applicants must be U.S. citizens with at least a 24 ACT score and a 3.0 high school GPA. The students must also be eligible for a Pell Grant, which is determined based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Recruitment of the first cohort of 10 students for fall 2020 begins Nov. 1.

Those wishing to apply must fill out a separate S-STEM scholarship form available at the SDSU Office of Admissions. More than $600,000 of the grant’s funds will be used for student scholarships. “We will try to cover the students’ financial needs as much as we can,” Burckhard said. A second group of 10 students will receive scholarships for fall 2021. The S-STEM scholars and their parents will visit campus as part of Scholars Weekend in February. The families will also receive updates on the benefits their children are getting throughout this research project.

Developing engineering identity

“The literature identifies engineering-related experiences and connections as key aspects of developing an engineering identity,” Burckhard said. The researchers will begin building that identify among the freshman through a weeklong seminar before start of fall semester. “Part of the idea with the seminar is to establish a sense of community within the student cohort,” she explained. The one-credit seminar will familiarize students with campus life and how to develop interpersonal, team-building and study skills. Each semester, the students will also be required to take a one-credit professional development course that will allow them to earn a certificate in leadership. The courses and leadership certificate will be available to all engineering students.  “Students will learn more about what it means to be an engineering professional,” Burckhard explained. Furthermore, practicing engineers and industry representatives will speak to classes and the students will tour engineering companies. “We are building networking skills and increasing the students’ comfort level interacting with industry and marketing themselves as engineers,” she noted. These connections will help them secure internships—and eventually full-time jobs.  Brad Wermers, president of Banner Associates Inc., sees the S-STEM program as a tool to identify promising students. “This gives me an opportunity to get to know more students and thereby draw summer interns from that group and hopefully have a position for them when they graduate.”

Leah Brink, corporate recruiter and student pipeline manager for Daktronics, said, “We are committed to providing challenging internships, enthusiastic industry mentors and career opportunities to the S-STEM scholars.”

Facilitating academic success

In addition to connecting with industry, the students can learn problem-solving skills and receive academic support through peer mentor groups and faculty mentoring. “We want them to feel confident enough to seek help, be it from a professor or through a study group,” she said. In addition, the researchers will update engineering faculty at the monthly American Society for Engineering Education meetings on campus. “We will be reporting on how things are going to create a ripple effect. We are studying the students but are also hoping to impact teaching.”






Real-life experiences and opportunities await you

Are you ready for a rewarding career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM)? Whatever your interest, we will prepare you for the future through a rigorous, practical education focused on problem-solving in one of many STEM majors offered in our six departments in the College of Engineering.

You can also enhance your degree with many options for real-life work experience right here in Brookings or nearby. Most of our students complete part-time work in their major before graduation at nearby engineering/manufacturing companies who are eager to hire our students and graduates.

We also offer opportunities for world-class research experience and graduate study for those who want to change the world through a career in research and development.

SDSU graduate student finds success at national research lab


Prateek Munankarmi at NREL
During his internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, Prateek Munankarmi, then a South Dakota State University graduate student,
models how smart home capabilities in residential homes can affect the energy distribution system. (Photo credit: NREL/ Dennis Schroeder)

“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” That adage captures the experiences of South Dakota State University graduate student Prateek Munankarmi.

When Munankarmi interviewed for an internship at National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, he found the research he was doing at South Dakota State matched what the lab was doing—and he landed the position.

That did not happen by chance.

After working for a utility company building a hydroelectric power plant, Munankarmi sought a graduate program focused on managing energy distribution. That led him to Assistant Professor Tim Hansen of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “South Dakota State has a good power program and Dr. Hansen’s profile matched my interests,” Munankarmi said.

What the Nepal native did not know then was that Hansen was a NREL intern while completing his doctorate at Colorado State University. “The research I do is very much in line with the research done at NREL,” Hansen said.

Following Hansen’s advice, Munankarmi learned a new programming language and simulation tools. He also took an operations research course to learn the fundamentals of optimization. “Prateek is an amazing student,” Hansen said. “He learned a lot of tools that helped him solve problems that he was interested in and that coincided with what NREL wanted.”

Munankarmi completed his one-year NREL internship in April and begin a full-time position in the NREL residential buildings group in May.

Modeling smart technologies

“The excitement level here is really high—I get to learn something new every day and have the freedom to explore things,” said Munankarmi, whose internship focused on home management systems.

“I model how smart appliances and scheduling will affect the grid on the residential side as well as the utility side,” he explained. “For example, if we have 2,000 households or more with smart home capabilities, how does that impact the grid, utility companies’ profits and distribution systems?”

Power suppliers charge less for nonpeak energy because more efficient generators, including renewables, such as wind and solar, are in use, while peak power generators are the most expensive to run. “The ability to change loads will help increase penetration of renewable energy in the grid,” he said.

Changing consumer habits

Currently, customers pay a flat rate for electricity based on the amount they use each month. “That does not motivate consumers to change their behaviors,” Munankarmi said. He is examining how providing incentives to homeowners to change their consumption patterns can help balance energy demand.

However, he noted, one of the major challenges is to assure residential customers that they can schedule appliance usage to reduce their electricity costs while maintaining their comfort level. “Human behavior is difficult to model because it’s hard to predict what people will do,” Munankarmi said.

That’s why he’s looking forward to the next phase. “We are trying not only to formulate a solution through simulation, but also to test it in the field.”

The plan is to simulate a residential community of 500 zero-energy-ready homes in Fort Collins and perform field validation in a portion of those homes. Many of those homes will have rooftop photovoltaic panels, smart appliances, battery storage and individual energy management systems. The homeowners will then be able to input their preferences.

“It’s a very exciting project with a lot of technical details,” said Munankarmi, who defended his thesis in April and graduated in May. “At NREL, I was able to build on what I had learned at SDSU,” Munankarmi said. He acknowledged the support and encouragement of his NREL mentors, Annabelle Pratt and Xin Jin, as contributing to his success.

“Prateek has good understanding of both power systems and building control,” said Jin, a control engineering researcher in NREL’s Residential Buildings Research Group. “This unique background made him capable of contributing to different parts of our projects. It has been a great experience working with him and I look forward to continue working with him upon his return.”

“Prateek was a wonderful addition to our project team as an intern,” said Pratt, a principal engineer in NREL’s Power Systems Engineering Center. “We worked on an analysis of the impact of smart appliances, electric vehicles, residential batteries, and home energy management systems on power system operations under emerging electricity tariffs. He has an excellent grasp of the operation of power systems and up-to-date knowledge on power systems modeling. This is a testament both to Dr. Hansen’s skills as an adviser to graduate students, and to Prateek’s hard work and keen interest in this area of research. We are delighted that he has decided to join NREL.”

“When Prateek got the internship, I told him ‘this your chance to prove that you are worth hiring.’ Obviously, he impressed multiple people to land a full-time job,” Hansen said. “We are not going to send every student to NREL, but we know what they are looking for—we are building a reputation for our power program.”

Munankarmi agreed: “New students coming into the master’s program will have this opportunity—that’s exciting.”

AME Building

New Architecture, Mathematics and Engineering Building

The University's five-year strategic plan – IMPACT 2018 – includes projects that support infrastructure, facilities and services, in order to expand the capacity for quality research, scholarship and creative activities. Among those projects was a new Architecture, Mathematics and Engineering building located southeast of the Administration Building, adjacent to the current Solberg Hall.

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