Steeped in History, Widener Engineering Looks to the Future
The first three graduates from Widener’s predecessor institution, Pennsylvania Military Academy (PMA), were awarded engineering degrees in 1867. Since then, thousands of others have followed in their footsteps to become Widener-educated engineers.
The university has been through many changes in its long history, and engineering has continued to grow and evolve with it. At more than 160 years old, the School of Engineering has grown far beyond the civil engineering education of the post-Civil War era and continues to adapt to meet the needs of a diverse and changing world, preparing students to tackle engineering problems locally and globally.
“Engineering is all around us. From the roads we drive on, to the medical care we receive, to the computers we use each day,” said Provost Andrew Workman. “Widener engineering has witnessed and been a part of the evolution of it all. Our commitment to educating students to be on the forefront starts with our history, and we continue to lead the charge in the industry.”
The School of Engineering is looking toward the future. In 2023, it welcomed a new dean, launched a new construction management degree, and celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the co-op program – proving time and again the school’s adaptability as a leader in the field. Now home to eight degree-granting programs, the School of Engineering is on the forefront of such fields as robotics, chemical engineering, and biomedical engineering.
Dean Pamela McCauley joined Widener in July following the retirement of longtime Dean Fred Akl. McCauley has built her career as scholar, leader, and advocate for diversifying the field of engineering and was drawn to Widener because of the university’s commitment to belonging.
“I’ve been committed to supporting and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout my career. As an African American female engineer, I have tried to use my position, power, and influence to attract women and underrepresented groups to pursue careers in STEM in multiple ways,” said McCauley.
The one constant through Widener engineering’s long history has been outstanding faculty support and mentorship. Faculty are leaders in their fields and bring that knowledge into the classroom to prepare students for the future.
Danny Griffin was a graduate of the inaugural class of biomedical engineering students at Widener. It was 2015, and he was one of only about nine students.
Nearly a decade later, Widener’s biomedical engineering has grown in leaps and bounds. It’s one of the most popular engineering disciplines – today there are 60 students – who venture into a variety of careers and industries, from pharmaceuticals, to medical device development, to research.
“I had a phenomenal experience with all the faculty. They were clearly invested in me and my peers,” said Griffin.
But it was one professor in particular – Sachin Patil – whose research in cancer and immunotherapies, and his unbridled passion, captured Griffin’s imagination and “unlocked what I get to do today. It changed biomedical from something I should do because I was good at it, to something I wanted to do for a career because it could change the world for the better.”
Griffin began working with Patil during his first year on campus. “I was blown away going to his office as a freshman. I didn’t know anything. But Dr. Patil was intentional in creating ways for students to get involved. Early on he gave me an opportunity to help in the research lab, and it led to authorship on a peer-reviewed paper. As an undergrad, this became my ticket to grad school.”
And he earned that ticket, attending the University of Kansas for his doctorate in bioengineering. Griffin remained interested in autoimmune research, focusing his efforts on multiple sclerosis, a disorder impacting his mother. His career has since taken him into the bioscience venture capital space where he still collaborates with Patil on ongoing research efforts with real-world potential.
“I look back and am overwhelmingly grateful for the biomedical engineering faculty and Dr. Patil, and I appreciate that my experience in his NanoBio Lab was a unique one. The exposure I was granted here ignited a passion for research in my own life,” said Griffin.
On the Cutting Edge
Just as Griffin experienced being in the first group of program graduates for biomedical engineering, so did Emily Sockel ’23 in robotics.
Robotics engineering is a multidisciplinary program that integrates knowledge from various areas, including mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science, under one framework, with the goal of preparing students for careers on the cutting edge of technology and in a field that is impacting nearly every aspect of life and work.
Sockel always dreamed of working as a Walt Disney Imagineer, developing rides and attractions for Disney parks. When she was ready to think about her future, her brother, mechanical engineering alum Chris Sockel ’14, encouraged her to apply to Widener.
At the time, Widener had just started the first robotics engineering undergraduate program in the region, and Sockel was getting in on the ground floor to learn from passionate faculty and work toward her dreams.
“Dr. [Xiaomu] Song and Dr. [Daniel] Roozbahani love pushing you to make sure you reach your limits and excel in everything you want to do,” said Sockel. “I sat down with Dr. Song so many times, and he helped me figure out my career path and the classes to take. He always told me ‘Emily, I know you can do better.’”
By the time Sockel graduated with her bachelor’s in robotics engineering in 2023, she had already accepted a job at Siemens, where she now works on the digital control systems side.
Since joining Siemens, Sockel and her fellow new hires must complete an 18-month introductory program to become senior engineers. As she’s been progressing through, she has found that her experience at Widener is setting her apart from the group.
“We had very controls-heavy classes. A lot of [my peers] didn’t have any controls knowledge,” she explained. “They’re all chemical engineers so they didn’t know the processes to any of the plants. I think having Widener push controls so hard really gave me a better understanding.”
Sockel’s Disney dreams have changed but not faded. In high school she learned that Siemens created all of the controls for her favorite Walt Disney World ride, Spaceship Earth. Her goal is to continue advancing her career with the company and move over to the ride automation team to make magic around the world.
“I see tremendous opportunities for collaborative relationships with local industry, and to build our partnerships that are aligned with Widener’s strategic priorities,” said McCauley.
One major source of industry collaboration is alumni. With such a long history comes a vast network of alumni who are working in the industry and know the value of a Widener engineering degree. These connections can be vital for students looking to solidify their paths or get their start after school.
I used all the resources made available, and it helped. It built my confidence." — Kevin Brown '09 '14
Kevin Brown Jr.’s Widener journey was not an easy one. Initially he wasn’t even planning on going to college. When he got to Widener – drawn by small classes sizes – he struggled in his calculus and physics classes. But the civil engineering major reached out for help, meeting with his advisor, Vicki Brown, and utilizing the resources on campus.
“Dr. Brown encouraged me to use office hours. That’s what saved me – the one-on-one with my professors. I used all the resources made available, and it helped. It built my confidence.”
One of those resources was Widener’s unique and highly regarded co-op program, which, unlike other institutions, enables students to complete up to a full year of paid, real-world experience without adding time onto their degree completion.
One of Brown’s co-ops led to a connection and a job offer with his first employer following his 2009 graduation. Brown returned to Widener and completed his master’s in civil engineering in 2014.
Today, he’s a construction services manager for TranSystems, overseeing the construction management and inspection unit, and working with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the state’s Turnpike Commission, and others. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers named him Philadelphia Young Civil Engineer of the Year. Four years later, he received a similar honor from DVEW/Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia.
Brown credits much of his success to the mentorship and support he received along the way, and he is committed to paying it forward, especially at his alma mater. For more than a decade, he has been a practitioner advisor for the university’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, providing students with connections and industry expertise.
“In order to improve the industry and society, you have to give back, whether it’s personal or professional,” said Brown.
The addition of a construction management program is already proving valuable, even before the first students step foot in the classroom.
“According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for construction management jobs is expected to increase much faster than average through 2030,” said McCauley. “Gaining a degree in construction management will position our graduates for an exciting, rewarding, and impactful career.”
When Widener began eying the new major, Brown was a logical choice to serve on the advisory committee and help steer the direction of the program. He says Widener is wise to bring the program to campus now.
“In a time when our infrastructure is failing, there are so many problems and projects, and the missing piece is who is going to help manage those projects. This is the perfect opportunity to have a program to develop those students.”
The Changing Face of Engineering
Brown is also committed to helping ensure that the engineering field, and by extension the engineering school, continues to grow and diversify. He’s encouraged to see more women and more students of color in the program. He routinely returns to campus to speak with students, to share his story, and to show them that the face of engineering is changing.
“I let them see that you can look a certain way and be successful. I didn’t necessarily have someone for me that did that when I was a student,” said Brown. “There has been drastic positive change when you look at diversity [in SOE]. I’m proud to see it.”
This year, Widener welcomed the largest and most diverse class of first-year students in university history. With half of those students identifying as a person of color, the university is well on its way to continue diversifying the next generation of industry professionals in engineering and beyond.
“I’m so proud of the diversity in the first-year class this academic year,” said McCauley. “This example of success in diversity among our first-year students, coupled with the sense of belonging that we focus on at Widener, is the type of change I’ve worked for and hoped to see throughout my career. I am hopeful that we will see much more of this in the diversity manifested in the future to realize our national goals in engineering and lead the world in innovation.”