Ezra Kahn came to the University of Vermont's College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS) from New York City in the fall of 2003. He received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from UVM CEMS in December 2006, and begins an Accelerated Master's Program for Mechanical Engineering this spring.
UVM allows Ezra to use nine credits from his BS towards his master's degree, saving him time and money. "I'm really excited," Ezra says. "The Accelerated Master's Program frees up a lot of time to focus on fun research projects."
When you meet Ezra today, he is clearly an articulate, resourceful and creative individual destined for success. Yet Ezra's journey began with a few lurches and sputters.
"I didn't understand the value of education or of my own potential for success," Ezra explains. After high school, he did not stay long at New York's Stony Brook University. "I had a lot of pressure from my family to go to college. They told me it was important, and I guess I believed them. But at that time I just wasn't prepared for the kind of hard work a higher education requires."
Ezra left school, moved to Massachusetts, and worked for a construction company during the day and baked bread at night. "Construction was a great experience, I learned a lot from the older guys — how to build a house and what years of physical labor can do to a person's body. I enjoyed the work, but in the back of my mind, I knew I didn't have to be there. I felt that I had squandered an opportunity that some of them never had."
Inspiration came from an article about ApproTEC (now called KickStart), a non-profit organization that develops and markets appropriate technologies in developing countries. Its founder, a Cornell alumnus, had designed a robust, affordable, manually operated irrigation pump for small African farms. "The story was very inspiring," Ezra says. "One person, through the careful and deliberate application of his talent, created a sustainable economy in a very poor place."
So Ezra restarted his pursuit of a degree at the City College of New York. Although it was difficult for him to get admitted, Ezra pushed forward. He received probationary admission in the fall of 2002 based on an essay he submitted to the Registrar's Office describing his newfound inspiration.
"The City College of New York was great," Ezra says. "It draws people from all over the world who really value the opportunity to get an education in America. For a lot of those people, just getting into the country was a huge success and they planned on making the most out of being here." The experience opened Ezra's eyes to what he had been taking for granted. "And," he adds, "maybe what my family had been trying to tell me. Just being born in this country entitled me to something most people never have — the chance to better myself and live life my way."
Ezra transferred to UVM as a sophomore in the fall of 2003. "I came to Burlington to be closer to my then-girlfriend," Ezra explains. "Fortunately, my relationship with this town has been much healthier than our relationship with each other. Burlington provides lots of fun things to do, without the stresses of daily life in New York City."
Ezra's first UVM contact was Joan ("Rosi") Rosebush, Director of Student Success for UVM CEMS. "Rosi has always been completely supportive," he says. "She made the transition easy and offered me a position as a work study in the Student Services Office." Rosi is equally complimentary about Ezra. "He has a wonderful sense of humor," she smiles, "and he is very conscientious."
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Joan Jordan then introduced Ezra to Dr. Dryver Huston, who took him on as a work-study student and assigned him to a hierarchical actuator project begun by Brian Esser, a previous student.
"An actuator is designed to repeatedly move something a precise distance," Ezra explains, "but real-life actuators don't always move the same distance every single time." Huston and Esser had designed a series of linkages tying four actuators together, reducing displacement variations through geometric complexity. When Ezra was assigned to the project, it was half done. "Brian wasn't around to hold my hand," Ezra says. "I was asked to finish it by the end of the month, but I had no idea what I was doing and had never seen anything like this before. The tight deadline forced me to sit down and figure it out."
Next, Professor Huston's contact with Applied Research Associates in South Royalton provided an opportunity for UVM to create a hovercraft for demonstration at the Intelligent Ground Vehicles Competition in Detroit, Michigan. Students Paul Montane, Scott Teuscher, and Ezra, working with Graham Spencer as graduate student advisor, developed a hovercraft that could operate with complete autonomy, that is, without any human input.
"They worked very hard, raised a lot of money for the project and built the hovercraft from scratch," says Huston. Ezra and Scott received UVM's Undergraduate Research Endeavors Competitive Award (URECA!) in November 2005 to help fund the project. The hovercraft project has also led to the formation of a UVM Robotics Club.
Ezra emphasizes that the opportunity to help with research was a favorite part of his undergraduate experience at UVM. "The school has many ways for undergraduates to get some real experience," he enthuses.
As a way to give back to those who helped him succeed, Ezra will serve as a student mentor for the 2007 UVM/GIV Engineering Summer Institute, which is designed to inspire high school students through hands-on technology projects that serve humanity.