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A trip to Kenya shifts student perspectives on what an engineer is

A new international engineering summer program gives students research experience and broadens their minds

“When are you able to say you’re actually an engineer? I think this is something I’ve been trying to figure out for almost a year now,” said San Francisco State University Mechanical Engineering student Vasav Juthani.

Until recently, Juthani felt that he can’t claim the title “engineer” until he’s completed his Engineering degree. But an international research experience this summer made him question his beliefs.

“When we went to Kenya, the teachers there had no engineering degrees, and they proudly say, ‘I’m an engineer,’” he said.

Juthani was one of two San Francisco State students (and one of seven students total) who travelled to Kenya for a six-week summer experience doing engineering education research. The program, designed by SF State and Purdue University Engineering faculty, takes students to the Tumaini Innovation Center in Eldoret, Kenya, to work on engineering projects and provide engineering education. The program is funded by the National Foundation of Sciences, and the summer 2023 cohort was the first to participate in the program, which is slated to run for three years.

“It’s pretty unusual for Engineering students to study abroad,” said SF State School of Engineering Assistant Professor Stephane Claussen, who is leading the project. It’s usually hard to fit international experiences into the extremely structured programs typical of the engineering field, Claussen explains. “We’re offering students experiences abroad, and they’re engaging in research in this very rich way. But it’s in partnership with community organizations, which is also pretty unique for Engineering students,” she added.

The university engineers are partnering with Tumaini, a school reducing educational barriers faced by vulnerable youth in Eldoret. Tumaini educators teach and provide mentorship, youth vocational training and more so individuals can build successful and productive careers in their communities.

The visiting university students worked with this community to support ongoing engineering and educational projects at the school. Many of the university engineers were first-time researchers, but there’s a limit to how much prior research experience could have prepared them for this experience. The Kenyan engineering environment was very different from what most of the students were used to.

Juthani, who loves working on cars, recalls talking to a Tumaini alum who works at a car body shop. Learning about Juthani’s interests, the mechanic asked him how’d fix his car. Juthani eagerly listed ideas, and the alum pointed out that none of those ideas are feasible — none of the necessary parts are available, so they make everything from scratch.

“It was just very interesting to see how they operate with the resources they have on hand,” said Juthani. “It kind of makes me want to explore the world more and do the same kind of opportunity elsewhere.”

Within his very first week, Juthani watched a group of students build a system to transport water upstairs to a hair dressing and beauty therapy class. They had most of the idea down, Juthani said, but needed a little help executing. He tried to assist and quickly realized that he’d have to adapt his own communication style to connect with his new colleagues.

“Even with the language barrier, they’re able to understand what I was explaining to them. It was a very surreal feeling to be there and have them understand what you’re saying,” Juthani said. “It really changed something in my head, and I was very excited for the rest of the experience.”

These are the types of changes Claussen and her faculty collaborators hoped for. Engineers are not simply individuals doing math in a cubicle, she explains, and they have a responsibility to consider the social implications of their work.

“There’s a lot of learning that goes on. How do we interact with people in a responsible way? And how do we make sure that they are willingly joining your research study and so on?” Claussen said.

Students walking through a manufacturing plant
Students walking on a nature hike in Kenya

Students went on field trips while in Eldoret, Kenya

The faculty organizers wanted this research experience to be accessible for any student. The program pays for travel, lodging and basic meals, and students receive a stipend for their work. In addition to research, the program includes nature hikes, field trips to the local university and manufacturing plants, and more. The faculty also tried to make an inclusive application process, taking students’ different backgrounds and experiences into consideration. They want any student to be eligible for this transformative opportunity.

“Before this experience, I feel like I hit an educational block where I just couldn’t process stuff the same way. This experience helped push me out of my comfort zone and forced me to learn on my own and do research on how I can improve something,” Juthani said. “I think that’s the whole point of an engineer. [It’s] figuring out how you can improve something.”

Learn more about this year’s application (currently open) and discover more  SF State’s School of Engineering.

Associate professor lands prestigious grant for work on sustainable engineering

Example of buildings incorporating green infrastructure

NSF Early CAREER awardee Jenna Wong explores how nature can be incorporated into building design

As a Bay Area native, San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Jenna Wong understands the importance of sustainability and structural engineering from personal experience. She was on hand for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and recalls being fascinated afterward by how downtown buildings were designed to withstand the formidable power of nature.

This year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) named Wong an Early CAREER grant recipient to study the resilience of green infrastructure. Her proposal focuses on the practice of incorporating nature, like a vertical greenery and green roof structure, into a building’s design. Wong’s five-year grant of $510,000 will help inform green infrastructure guidelines and equip San Francisco State students with skills for an environmentally conscious workforce.

“This is going to prepare students, the next generation of engineers, by teaching them what sustainable structural resilience is,” Wong said, adding that climate change is a reality that engineers must tackle.

While Californians are familiar with sustainability, engineers focus on a parallel track called structural resilience. It’s how they design structures to endure natural hazards and continue to serve their communities after an event. Engineers plan for the worst-case scenarios — considering factors such as the maximum weight a structure can tolerate — but that’s difficult to do when loads are variable for items such as plants and trees. Despite their many benefits, green infrastructures are dynamic living environments that can be unpredictable.

Jenna Wong

“If we consider climate change and influences from the environment, this dynamic weight is going to vary over time,” Wong said. “There are also conditions where we may exceed [the weight] if we don’t have proper maintenance. For example, we have windborne storms with significant rain and puddling on roof surfaces.”

Wong is concerned about the lack of guidelines for sustainable structures. Her team will use computational modeling to estimate how green infrastructures impact a structure’s properties and earthquake response. This information will inform guidelines for these sustainable structures and help Wong’s group develop a strategy for green infrastructure that improves earthquake response.

Wong’s project broadens educational discussions about new and more sustainable materials. This is important, she explains, because engineering classes traditionally focus on materials like concrete and wood although in reality students are going to encounter sustainable materials like timbercrete (timber waste + concrete) and hempcrete (hemp + concrete).

In addition to developing new curricula, Wong will make educational YouTube videos on these topics in collaboration with a variety of industry and academic professionals. The videos will cover green infrastructure, sustainability and possible career paths.

“Children nowadays are experiencing [education] via YouTube channels and other platforms,” she explained. “I’m hoping to bring it to a higher level. Not only for high schoolers, but for our college students and even for the broader community so they can have a fun yet informative experience that exposes them to a lot of different topics.”

Wong’s latest award supports her ongoing mentorship efforts across the School of Engineering. In recent years, she’s been leading the NSF Hispanic-serving intuitions-funded Engineering Success Center, which provides students with academic, advising and professional development support.

“I want to motivate my students, especially knowing that they may not necessarily have the same support system as others,” Wong said. “I want to find ways within the classroom to build that community and create easily accessible resources for them to bring out their inherent resilience.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Engineering.

Helping hands: how undergrad research experiences open doors

Undergrad Lauren Gan’s work on an exoskeleton glove won her a prestigious award and changed how she viewed her own potential

When undergraduate engineer Lauren Gan was at community college, she applied for a summer research internship at San Francisco State University. She never anticipated the opportunities that would arise from that summer.

Now Gan — who transferred to San Francisco State early 2023 from Skyline College — has won the Undergraduate Student Award at the 2023 Pacific Southwest section of the American Society of Engineering Educators (ASEE) for her work on an exoskeleton glove that helps people with limited mobility.

“It opens up doors for you. I’m saying that from first-hand experience,” Gan said of her research and engineering conference experiences — both of which were firsts for her. They’ve allowed her to really apply fundamentals she’s learned in courses and network with like-minded individuals.   

She first came to SF State as a community college student participating in the summer internship program S Smart in 2022. She was one of several students joining Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Quintero’s lab to work on an exoskeleton glove project under the guidance of a graduate student already in the lab. Now an SF State Mechanical Engineering major, Gan is continuing to work in Quintero’s lab doing independent research to optimize the group’s latest iteration of the exo glove. Their device provides structural support for patients with hand weakness due to injuries or disabilities like paralysis from spinal cord injury or stroke.

Their robotic hand is comprised of a soft material (a golf glove) for comfort that’s attached to a soft 3D-printed exoskeleton that moves using a motor. A cable-driven pulley system mimics tendons to assist with hand motion. The team hopes this design will be more comfortable than other rigid and clunky gloves and cheaper than devices made with pricier materials. Gan estimates that their glove can lift items that weigh less than 400 grams, like a bottle of water.


Lauren Gan wearing exo glove (right) and close up image of exoskeleton glove (left)

On the left, Mechanical Engineering student Lauren Gan wears her exoskeleton glove. On the right is a close-up image of her research project. 


At the ASEE conference — held on the University of Southern California campus in April — Gan not only presented a poster about her research but learned how she can combine mechanical engineering with an exciting field she wasn’t familiar with: humanitarian engineering.

Humanitarian engineering focuses on engineering that helps people in equitable, sustainable ways. The conference ignited Gan’s interest in applying that philosophy to her research, and she took the idea to Quintero, who is still her research adviser. He says they’ll work on making that happen, perhaps through collaborations with actual patients, for her senior project.

“The support that you get from your professors — it’s been a lot for me and it has helped me move forward even when I feel like I’m not doing enough,” Gan said.

She is also collaborating with another SF State research team to integrate a computer interface into their device. Doing this would couple the glove with sensors that detect a patient’s nerve signals to control the robotic arm.

Gan never expected to be this deep in research or win an award for her work. When she signed up for the summer research opportunity she admits she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do.

“At the time I was actually struggling a lot with what I wanted to do with school. Over the last fall semester [at community college] I was even debating just dropping out or taking a gap semester,” she said. After enjoying her summer in Quintero’s lab, she asked if she could continue volunteering on the lab’s work during the school year. She also took a lighter school course load to focus on self-care and reassess her interests.

“I kind of got a better sense of what I wanted to do and got my life together a little bit more,” she said, adding that these experiences contributed to her transfer to SF State.

She’s now enrolled in the SF State Scholars program, an accelerated pathway for undergraduate School of Engineering students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously. This summer, she’s also going to be a student mentor for new community college summer interns. She hopes she can give budding engineers advice as they navigate their own academic paths.

“Maybe keep your doors open because I didn’t expect myself to be going this route transferring to SF State, to be wanting to get my master's even … ,” she explained. “Don’t be afraid of asking questions. The opportunities are there. You have to reach out for it and not give up.”

Learn more about the School of Engineering to discover student research opportunities and academics.

Department of Energy appoints SF State School of Engineering to lead expanded pathways to clean energy jobs

The University will partner with other minority-serving institutions to improve student training and manufacturer energy efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded San Francisco State University $3.75 million to establish and lead the new Western Regional Center of Excellence to train a new generation of clean energy engineers and improve energy efficiency among manufacturers. This new center, housed within the School of Engineering, will be one of five regional Centers of Excellence in the nation and the only one in the West.

Over the next five years, San Francisco State’s Industrial Assessment Center (IAC) will partner with four other minority-serving institutions — San Jose State University, San Diego State University, Laney College and Cuyamaca College — to promote renewable energy and energy efficient technologies, reduce manufacturer emissions, improve industrial assessment methods and more in a multi-state region including the western United States, Hawaii and Alaska.

“This award recognizes SF State as a leader in advanced energy technologies and engineering education. The Center of Excellence will expand our best practices to other existing and new IACs, in order to promote the development of diverse energy engineers who can meet the high workforce demand in this field,” said Ed Cheng, professor and associate director of the School of Engineering, who is leading this project.

Based out of SF State’s IAC, the new program will be a regional hub for IACs to collaborate with government, nonprofit, labor and industry partners. Building upon services and training opportunities already provided via IACs, the center also will support training at other minority-serving institutions, establish programs in tribal communities and address environmental justice issues. This includes development of new curricula and best practices for IACs and other organizations.

Since 1992, SF State’s IAC program has provided Central and Northern California manufacturers free assessments of energy use, waste generation and water consumption. These assessments are mainly conducted by SF State Engineering students under the supervision of University faculty. The SF State IAC’s clients are usually within 150 radial miles from San Francisco, though the team has traveled to Humboldt and Fresno Counties and even other states such as Arizona.

“From the manufacturer’s standpoint, the IAC provides benefits in terms of energy and associated costs savings. But important co-benefits of this reduced energy consumption are reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and industrial pollutants that can negatively impact populations in historically disadvantaged communities,” explained Cheng.

The DOE currently funds 37 university-based IAC programs in 28 states. In over 40 years, these programs provided more than 20,000 assessments at small- and medium-sized manufacturers — more than 90% of the nation’s manufacturing base — typically finding more than $130,000 in potential annual saving opportunities for manufacturers.

Establishment of these regional centers of excellence is part of a combined $18.7 million in funding from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The DOE also announced a $54 million funding opportunity to expand IAC programs to community colleges, trade schools and union training programs and establish new building training assessment centers at higher education institutions. These efforts support President Joe Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which directs 40% of benefits of certain federal investments (clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, sustainable housing, etc.) to communities marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution.

Visit SF State’s IAC for more information about student training opportunities and how to request an energy assessment.