Peer Mentors and Much More

An armadillo-shaped jewelry box. A doorstop disguised at a stretching cat. A set of custom guitar picks. These are just a few of the things that students in UVM’s new UVM’s First Year Engineering Seminar (ENGR50) have been able to design and create in the Fabrication Lab as part of a unique experience course within CEMS that introduces students to career paths and curricular options in engineering. empowering them to make the right decisions early in their time at the university. Through project-based laboratories, they learn basic engineering principles and also meet with peers, professionals and faculty members in the field.

“This orients students to all the different possibilities within engineering,” says Marnie Owen, Assistant Dean for Student Services in the College of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences (CEMS). “In high school, they might be good at math and science, so they’re told they should be engineers, but they don’t know what that means. By the end of the class, we hope they have the tools to make more informed decisions about how they want to proceed.”

Bree Mathon, a CEMS lecturer who teaches the course, explains that class time is a mix of lectures and problem-solving session, with 275 students working in groups of four. One example: using straws and masking tape to build the tallest tower possible that can hold a can of seltzer. “I think there was only one can that popped,” she says with a laugh, adding that the winning creation stood a whopping 28 inches. “I wish there was a class like this for when I had started.”

It’s not just finding solutions centered on space and limitations, however, that has Mathon inspired to spread the news on this hybrid course. Learning the basics gives way to welcoming faculty from all disciplines explaining what the field entails and what research they do; then, UVM alumni who are professional engineers visit to talk to students about daily life in the workplace. “It’s a broad introduction to what UVM has to offer,” she says. “We’re interested in student feedback.”

An important component of ENGR50 is the mentoring aspect, as seasoned students work with newcomers to help them sort their way through unfamiliar times. One mentor works with 10 mentees at a time, answering questions that might not seem big enough or professional enough for faculty members or alumni. Elle Mountain ’18 helps supervise this program. “I started as a mechanical engineer and switched to civil — it was a frightening and confusing choice,” says Mountain, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and came to UVM “on a whim.” She might provide information on everything from the best place on campus to eat (New World Tortilla, in her opinion) to personalities of certain professors.

Mentors such as Taylor Lamberton ’18 report that the course’s collaborative approach allows them to share the necessary resources with students, from student prep at the tutoring center and TAs to activities and clubs outside the classroom. “Interactions can range from talking about future careers and internships with the students to simply grabbing a cup of coffee and asking them how they are doing,” he says. “We also think it’s important for students to figure out in their first year how to collaborate with other students and solve problems together.”

Next year, smaller classes, more hands-on projects and design, and mentors presenting in the classroom will offer even more opportunities to students, says Owen. In the meantime, current ENGR participants will be reflecting back on what they learned this year, especially if they’ve worked with mentor Emma Garvey ’18. She asked her mentees to write a sealed letter to their future selves that she will return at this semester’s end. “When you come into college, you’re so malleable,” she says. “I thought it would be really helpful for them to be able to read how a year in college may have totally changed their thought processes.”

Garvey also works in the UVM Fab Lab, which led to a natural teaching of designing creative ideas. A chance to create custom guitar picks? That’s what makes ENGR50 the course to pick. 



Sarah Tuff Dunn
Taking core samples from a cake.
As an example of the creative approach of this course, Mathon worked with students to use chocolate layer cake in simulating site characterization, taking “core” samples of the baked dessert.