Penn State alum builds on history in Graduate Program in Acoustics

'Boomerang' Penn Stater Andrew Barnard returned to his alma mater to build on program that taught him

March 20, 2024

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Penn State News. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After finishing his advanced degree in acoustics, Andrew Barnard returned to his alma mater in Michigan and never thought he’d come back to Penn State, much less lead the program he graduated from. 

But when he heard about an opening in Penn State’s Graduate Program in Acoustics, he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. In 2022, Barnard joined the program as director, and now he spends his time mentoring faculty, running a research lab with three students, meeting with first-year cohorts and teaches, alongside administrative duties. 

Barnard’s position puts him at the head of the only degree-granting graduate program for acoustics in the country, which brings a variety of disciplines and research areas together under one roof. 

“We get students not just from engineering that come into our program, but also from physics, mathematics,” Barnard said. “We get students from places like technical theater and music backgrounds. It's a really cool, diverse place to work because we have students from so many different backgrounds, and there's a wide variety of positions that those students can go into after they graduate.” 

That diversity includes geographic locations, too. The Graduate Program in Acoustics has offered asynchronous, remote learning options since the 1980s, Barnard said, when classes would be sent to students on VHS tapes. Now, they tend to use Zoom. 

“We have a fully integrated distance education and resident program. Our distance students are in the classroom virtually with our resident students, both synchronously and asynchronously,” Barnard said. “Zoom has been a godsend for us today, just like everyone else. But we've been doing this for a long time.” 

The program has a long history of bringing together students with a variety of interests. As the only U.S. degree-granting graduate program for the field, it offers a unique opportunity to focus on all things sound. Barnard himself initially came to Penn State because it seemed like the perfect way to marry his interests, as someone who both sang in choir and studied engineering. 

“I thought that the acoustics program was really interesting, because that allowed me to sort of merge what I did outside of school with what I did inside of school, for a potential career,” Barnard said. “I was a mechanical engineer who didn't really want to be a mechanical engineer, but I was good at it. I was good at math and physics.”  

He discovered an interest in noise control and acoustics while earning a master’s degree at Michigan Tech University in mechanical engineering. The course focused on reducing the noise of mechanical operations. Once he found Penn State’s program with a specific focus on sound, he moved here for his doctoral degree. 

Through the acoustics program, he could expand on his interests in the more specialized field. The program brought him opportunities for unique research — such as analyzing the sounds of fans during a Penn State football game.

three people holding equipment smile for photo

Barnard and his faculty advisers, Professor Emeritus and former acting dean of the College of Engineering Anthony Atchley and retired professor Steve Hambric, prepare to measure crowd noise at the Penn State v. Ohio State game in 2007 at Beaver Stadium. Credit: Penn State Graduate Program in Acoustics. All Rights Reserved.

“We were on the field for four games, which was really a lot of fun. That was back in 2009 to 2011,” Barnard said. “We were measuring the sound from the crowd, correlating that with things going on in the game, and we published a few papers on that.”

Now, as director, he can bring those same opportunities to students who enroll in the program. He hopes to get acoustics students on the sidelines of Penn State games next year to build on what was done more than 10 years ago when he studied at the University.

Barnard also studied acoustics and sound within Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory (ARL). Following his time as a student in the graduate program, he spent eight years at ARL studying structural and underwater acoustics.

“Some of the faculty members that I learned from are still here, which is fun, along with a lot of new faculty members,” Barnard said. “It's nice to be able to use my experience in the program to help our current students and faculty. I think that I have some credibility because I've been through the program.”

Barnard left Penn State after his time with ARL, in part because of a desire to work more directly with students and a desire to return to Michigan, where he studied as an undergrad. He found work at Michigan Tech, where he gained tenure in the mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics department and served as director of the Great Lakes Research Center.

“I was looking for more student interaction, interested in tenure-track opportunities, and Michigan Tech is also my alma mater,” Barnard said. “At that time there were no real opportunities to jump to the tenure-track here at Penn State.”

person uses equipment on field inside empty football stadium

Barnard and his team measure noise transmission from individual seats to the field to determine maximum noise-producing sections of the crowd in 2009. Credit: Penn State Graduate Program in Acoustics. All Rights Reserved.

He stayed with Michigan Tech for eight years before the director position at Penn State became available. Bernard was told about the opening at Penn State and, while he enjoyed his time with Michigan Tech and wasn’t actively looking for new opportunities, he said becoming the director of the Graduate Program in Acoustics was a unique opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

The position allows him to do everything he enjoys, Barnard said, from working with students and teaching to advancing his skills as an administrator through committees in the College of Engineering.

“Coming back to the acoustics program was a fabulous opportunity for me to gain experience working on the academic side of the University in an administrative role,” Barnard said. “It’s a good group of people here in leadership positions. It’s helped me grow as an academic leader, and I think it’s been good for the program as well. All in all, it’s been a great experience.”

The location of the University also was part of the reason for returning, Barnard said.

“My wife and I enjoy State College. I've never been a big city person, so the fact that it's a mid-sized town and you drive five minutes in any direction and you're in the middle of the forest is really appealing to me,” he said.

Penn State has given Barnard room to grow and pursue his interests in academic and administrative capacities, he said. The position provided all the opportunities he was looking for, Barnard said, and it was worth coming back for.


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man looking off camera during football game.

Barnard measures crowd noise in 2009 at the Penn State v. Iowa game. Credit: Penn State Graduate Program in Acoustics. All Rights Reserved.