Engineering assistant professor honored with President's Award for Engagement

Jessica Menold recognized for estimable efforts devoted to recruiting and retaining a diverse engineering student population


By Samantha Chavanic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Engineer. Examiner. Educator. Entrepreneur. Jessica Menold, a Penn State College of Engineering faculty member and alumna, fills these roles with her research and teaching portfolio, as well as industry know-how as a startup co-founder.

For underrepresented engineering students, Menold embodies the role of enthusiast, encourager and empathizer — championing for them and with them as an inclusion and engagement activist and mentor.

Menold, the Hartz Family Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering, was recently recognized for her student recruitment and retention efforts with the President’s Award for Engagement with Students. Presented to faculty members who go above and beyond their responsibilities to engage and encourage students, the University bestows the President’s Award for Engagement upon just one recipient per year.

“I am incredibly honored to receive this award and am so lucky to work with so many amazing faculty, students and staff that are willing to build better engineering communities together,” Menold said.

Described in a nomination letter as someone who “captured the imagination of hundreds of underrepresented students in the College of Engineering,” Menold joined the University as an assistant professor in 2018. Menold brought her experience as a co-founder of Amparo, a company focused on developing better prosthetics, and an interest in failure, emergent technologies and prototyping with her. This interest evolved into a main research thrust, as Menold investigates the role prototyping plays in design decision making and the effect of advanced manufacturing technologies on design processes. As a faculty member, Menold emphasizes that failure is an important part of the learning process and that learning can, and should, be fun and hands-on.

“Failure is the most natural learning opportunity we're given, but failure can feel so personal and really hits students hard,” Menold said. “Helping students see failure as a learning opportunity and normalizing failure as an everyday occurrence in education can help students build a growth mindset.”

Inclusion and outreach

Engineering environments can often be unwelcoming to underrepresented and minoritized students, according to literature, frequently leading to discouragement and detachment. Menold noticed this trend emerge at the College of Engineering’s cross-disciplinary makerspace, the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory. She set her sights on improving learning and engagement opportunities for women and underrepresented students in engineering via hands-on activities. Due to her drive and determination to create a more inclusive and inviting environment for all, Menold was appointed the Learning Factory’s associate director for outreach and inclusion.

“We are lucky to count Dr. Menold as a colleague, just as her students are lucky to have her as a mentor,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of the Engineering. “Her outreach and inclusion efforts, as well as her leadership in the Learning Factory, have contributed positively to equity climate in both the college and the field of engineering as a whole.”

In this role, she has established multiple outreach and engagement opportunities including Fudge-Up Friday forums, BUILD Nights and the Maker Ambassador program. Menold also co-created Design Thinking & Resiliency, a course designed to support women and underrepresented engineering students learn the fundamentals of self-leadership and design thinking through a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail.

At Fudge-Up Friday events, faculty, College of Engineering leadership, industry alumni and other guests share stories of failure and resilience with students and explain why both play a role in learning and growth. BUILD Nights, biweekly events held each semester, center around empowered building and making in the Learning Factory.

The Maker Ambassador program aims to increase confidence in designing, making and leading and in creative problem-solving. Many Maker Ambassadors become involved with the program through their enrollment in the Design Thinking & Resiliency course. To continue advancing the skills learned in this course, Maker Ambassadors coordinate the guided BUILD Night activities, which expose students to engineering disciplines across the College of Engineering through hands-on design challenges. BUILD Nights also provide students with opportunities to interact with engineering faculty and industry professionals in a unique, active way.

“Before you can learn in an environment, you need to feel safe and supported in that space,” Menold said. “Creating spaces in the College of Engineering that foster that sense of safety, that welcome students who don't look like society's understanding of what an engineer ‘should be,’ is critical to ensuring we are fostering a diverse engineering workforce. I don't want to make spaces that underrepresented students simply survive in — I want to make spaces where everyone thrives.”

Impact and opportunities

Since its inception in fall 2019, more than 500 students have participated in the BUILD Nights program. Though the pandemic presented Menold and the Maker Ambassadors with an unusual test — how to offer hands-on making activities in a virtual setting — their resiliency and leadership skills conquered this challenge. They pivoted to registration-required online making events, complete with a premade kit of materials and Zoom question and answer and design-build sessions. A recent 100-slot BUILD Night registration filled up within minutes, according to Matt Parkinson, director of the Learning Factory and professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering. He attributes the demand to Menold’s empathetic and energetic personality.

“She [Menold] has an incredible ability to meet people ‘where they are,’ articulate a compelling version of where they can be and then take them by the hand for the journey to that amazing place,” Parkinson said. “Her efforts have made an immediate impact in the undergraduate experience of hundreds of students in the College of Engineering. ‘Making’ has been shown to be particularly beneficial for individuals from underrepresented groups, which adds extra meaning to her efforts.”

Though Menold says it is hard for her to pinpoint one aspect of student engagement, outreach and inclusion she is most proud of, she looks forward to continuing to connect with students.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but to me, the small moments with students who find a community or a home in the Learning Factory, who build confidence in their engineering abilities through hands-on making or who simply feel a sense of belonging in our space, make me the happiest,” she said. “That’s why we do all this. We just want students to feel like they belong here, know that they can be an engineer and understand that they aren’t defined by their grades or society’s definitions. I don’t know if it’s possible to accomplish all of those things in a handful of fun building activities, but we’re going to try.”


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Megan Lakatos

“We just want students to feel like they belong here, know that they can be an engineer and understand that they aren’t defined by their grades or society’s definitions.”
—Jessica Menold, Hartz Family Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering