In a corner of a dining area on the first floor of Founder’s Hall at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, two tables are pushed together, and a half dozen mechanical engineering technology students gather.
It is in between classes, and these mechanical engineering technology students are hungry, but they’re balancing break time with study because the coursework demands it. They’re there to work on any one of many projects recently assigned by their professors.
Their laptops are out and up, books are open, and notes on spiral binders float among them. In the midst of all of that, conversations linger and laughter erupts as they look to the group’s unofficial leader, Jonathon Stretch, 29, a Temple resident who rallies them into some semblance of happy, productive chaos.
The group is a reflection of the many communities sending their students to A&M-Central Texas. The hometowns read like a roadmap of Central Texas. Conor Lydon, 19, is from Belton; Michael Moylan, 23, is from Copperas Cove; Kristian Peck, 26, is from Kempner. Jonathan Stretch, 29, and Ian Kanenicky, 42, are from Temple, and Luis Ascencio, 30, is from Killeen.
Each of them began at Central Texas College before enrolling at A&M-Central Texas in Fall 2019, when the university launched a new undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering technology.
“It feels like we are invested in this program because we are,” said Stretch, describing how purposefully the program’s faculty interact with the students, not just as learners, but as colleagues in pursuit of mastering a challenging curriculum.
“Dr. Harvey and Dr. Sagar ask us all the time when we are working through the stages of an engineering problem and things come up, ‘Is this something you’re interested in?’
They might be showing us the best way to measure an object, or ascertain its weight, or examine the impact of a detonation. So, they stop and ask. And, for us, that’s the inspiring part. We’re invited to learn as equals.”
Taylor Harvey, coordinator of the program and faculty member, came to A&M-Central Texas in fall 2016, then and still a part of the Chancellor’s Research Initiative through the Texas A&M University System.
And while he remains actively engaged in research, he is proud to be a part of the new degree program and prouder still of its students.
“Students who graduate from this program will be able to sit in the middle of experience and theory,” he said. “They’ll be conducting hands-on engineering experiments and leading engineering techs in labs.”
Roughly half of the program’s new students have military backgrounds, having served in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force. They are former electronics technicians, an aircraft hydraulics specialist, a bridge crew member, and a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic. The oldest among them, Ian Kanenicky, spent 15 years in the Navy.
As much as they clearly love what they are learning, this cohort of students doesn’t mind being thought of as “nerds,” progressing though the required prerequisite coursework at Central Texas College, mastering physics, calculus, engineering, mechanics, electrical circuitry and chemistry.
Among them, there are fishermen and hunters, avid sports fanatics, husbands and fathers and family men, and — quite surprisingly — one in training as tutor in the University’s Writing Center.
This skill, observes professor Harvey, is as important as any of the scientific or mathematical knowledge.
“The industry found that engineers and techs didn’t communicate well,” he noted. “So when we designed the program, we placed a heavy emphasis on not just doing the mathematical sequences that are required of engineering, but being able to communicate results within and among business men and women as well as lay people. That adds a level of value to our programs that other programs don’t have. And it makes our students that much more valuable to employers.”
University President Marc Nigliazzo praised Central Texas College for providing well-rounded and academically gifted students, ready for transfer into rigorous undergraduate STEM programs.
“Our goal has always been to provide a pathway to the undergraduate degree for adults who have been well-prepared by the region’s community colleges,” he said. “These students are a wonderful example that our partnership — and our common mission — is working to benefit the students and the region.”
Engineering Week was celebrated across the U.S., Feb. 16-22, observed by more than 70 engineering, education, and cultural societies and more than 50 corporations and government agencies.