Published: Jan. 24, 2020 By

Julie Steinbrenner, Mike Hannigan, Kat McConnell headshots

Senior Instructor and External Relations Committee Chair Julie Steinbrenner (left), Department Chair Mike Hannigan (middle), Senior Professional Development Advisor Kat McConnell (right) and former Instructor Jenifer Blacklock helped to develop Student Experiential Education at CU Boulder. 

The Department of Mechanical Engineering has officially launched Student Experiential Education (SEE), an effort designed to enhance connections between students and industry. SEE empowers students to think and act like the professionals they want to become.

Fueled by a generous donation in spring 2019, the initiative responds to a need for greater professional development guidance for students and a desire to connect with alumni in more meaningful ways.

“We started by asking a lot of questions and thinking about where there were areas of opportunity in the department to bring in industry presenters or connect students with alumni,” said Kat McConnell, senior professional development advisor.

Faculty, staff and students have been involved in the development of the program, led by Senior Instructor and External Relations Committee Chair Julie Steinbrenner, Department Chair Mike Hannigan, McConnell and former Instructor Jenifer Blacklock.

In effort to design with students in mind, the department organized focus groups early on. Student apprentices have now taken on leadership roles, serving as peer advisors while sharing their experiences from recent internships and contributing to the development of SEE.

Focus groups revealed that while students aren’t lacking career development resources, navigating them and figuring out which are most valuable can be challenging, McConnell said. They also learned that students are interested in getting to know faculty and alumni in ways that extend beyond the recruitment process, but it can be challenging for them to know how to best make those connections. 

SEE began with a focus on strengthening existing department events, launching new events and identifying opportunities for students to work one-one-one with industry volunteers. New events include Research Lunches, Explore ME Dinners, Industry Tours and a cross-disciplinary Robotics Networking Night co-hosted with the Departments of Computer Science and Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering. Each event shares a common theme: creating opportunities for current students to interact with and learn from alumni, faculty and peer mentors.

Group activities are complemented by opportunities for individual interaction. All second-year students participate in mock interviews and informational interviews with alumni volunteers or another industry contact. SEE also motivates students to pursue experiences outside the classroom that apply to their own interests and to share their experiences at professional conferences and encourages faculty to pursue projects that bring industry into the classroom.

SEE also motivates students to pursue experiences outside the classroom that apply to their own interests and to share their experiences at professional conferences or in Colorado classrooms. All second-year students participate in a mock interview and an informational interview with an alumni volunteer or another industry contact.

“Alumni can have a half-hour conversation with a student that the student remembers for years to come,” said Steinbrenner. “Our alumni open doors that students hadn’t previously considered.”

As SEE continues to develop, Steinbrenner said she is most excited to see engagements between students and professionals begin to happen throughout their time at CU Boulder, hopefully leading to higher internship rates. McConnell said she is excited to see increased integration of industry examples and opportunities for engagement in the classroom.

“We’ve made strong pillars with some of our core mechanical engineering courses,” said Steinbrenner, “but we look forward to students seeing relevance in every class and in what they pursue outside the classroom, too.”

The College of Engineering and Applied Science recently selected McConnell and Steinbrenner for awards recognizing their outstanding contributions as educators. Steinbrenner and McConnell have worked closely to bring many initiatives—like SEE—to life. McConnell received the Outstanding Staff Award, and Steinbrenner received the Charles A. Hutchinson Memorial Teaching Award.

Department Chair Mike Hannigan said Steinbrenner and McConnell have gotten an impressive amount of traction. He said he admires their shared passion for students, ability to stay calm and positive and their tireless efforts to move SEE forward.

“We’re really lucky to have them in the department,” said Hannigan. “Not only do they have a vision, but they implement. Every week, there’s something new, and they just keep going.”

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