Finding Purpose in Service

Chris McComb

As an engineering student at Fresno State, I was busy. It seemed as though projects were due every day, exams took place every class period, and homework was assigned to fill the gaps. My life was full—but not complete. At least, not until I started volunteering with MESA.

MESA is the more common moniker for the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Schools Program. The program is intended for middle and high school students, and is designed to spark their interest in careers in engineering and science. MESA programs are always in need of volunteers to judge competitions and teach workshops on skills and concepts. These volunteers are typically university students who are majoring in science, technology, or engineering.

My first experience with MESA was during my junior year at Fresno State. With some classmates, I was teaching high school students about the engineering design process. When we told the students that they would be designing a glider using only a styrofoam plate, we were greeted with incredulous stares. But their faces lit up one by one as we explained the process that engineers use to solve problems. They made and tested their gliders over the next hour. Some flew well, and others only made it a few feet, but this lesson wasn’t really about flight. They’d learned that even the most insurmountable task may, in fact, be quite possible. We had brought the discipline of engineering off of its pedestal and made it accessible to them. Until this point, I had dreamed of becoming an engineering professional, designing bridges and machines for the good of the world. But that day, my outlook changed. It dawned on me that I could do even greater things as an engineering educator.

Nearly a decade later, I’m an assistant professor of engineering design at Penn State. Every semester I have the honor of teaching bright-eyed first-year students – not too different from the high school students I taught through MESA. I hope that I can help my students see how important they are to the health of their local community, but that they might also begin to see all of the good that they can do for their global community.