Engineering students demand renovations

Classrooms littered with broken, outdated equipment. Part-time instructors with very little time and flexibility for office hours. Limited access to the already depleted resources available. A day in the life of an SF State engineering student is a difficult one, but the hole in the ceiling in one of the classrooms was one of the final issues that demanded action.

“There are leaks in the current building and part of the ceiling is missing,” said Vincent Mello, a third-year electrical engineering student. “Our simple fix was to put a bucket under the drip and rotate who empties the bucket. That’s where this place is at.”

Tucked away in the back corner of the campus, the engineering building is home to one of the largest departments in SF State, third to only the school of business and biology, according to SF State’s Institutional Research. A new building to house engineering, biology and chemistry plans to break ground in 2021 and open for classes and labs in 2024.

“This building is going to be built on a budget of $150 million. And the $150 million won’t just go into the building, it will include accompanying equipment that is necessary in engineering,” said Kwok Siong Teh, the director of the engineering department. “You can not have a nice house without a kitchen, and you can’t have a nice kitchen without a stove.”

According to Teh, engineering students on campus increased by roughly 300% over the past 15 years. Despite the exponential increase of students, the number of faculty remained stagnant. 

“The professors don’t have time for extra office hours. The majority of our teachers are lecturers so they are only around a couple of days a week,” Mello said. “It’s at the point where I missed a class to attend an office hour because it was the only available time.”

“Classes have 50 students, if not more, to one teacher,” said Araceli Gonzalez, a mechanical engineering student.

John Hanson, a fifth-year engineering student on the cusp of graduating in spring, continually attempts to improve the department for future students, alongside the 10 engineering societies, ran by undergraduates.

“We’ve been discussing problems in engineering since I can remember. We might as well do something about it. The best way to handle all of these problems, I found, was a town hall forum,” Hanson said. “I decided to invite the president of the university, the provost, the dean of the College of Science and Engineering (CoSE), the two assistant deans and the chair of engineering. The provost made it very clear that she wouldn’t go and the president is kind of beating around the bush due to availability.”

Michael Lino, an equipment technician for the department said Hanson has been doing everything he can to help the department “John is doing a great job and the college and the campus need to hear voices from the students,” Lino said. 

Hanson, alongside Mello and Gonzalez, spearheaded a town hall forum last week to discuss the myriad of problems within the department. “We had a town hall between the students, seven of them, with two associate deans of the college, the dean and myself,” said Kwok Siong Teh, director of the engineering department. “We had a very good conversation about the future of engineering.”

The problems at hand for the engineering department according to the student body: lack of faculty and employees, archaic equipment and outdated programs and no other resources to prepare students for their careers in the engineering field, according to the engineering students.

“For the first time, graders and student assistants were introduced into engineering,” Teh said in order to help the faculty maintain the workload and help the students of the continually growing department. Three new full-time professors will also be hired for the new semester according to Teh.

The stockroom is where supplies for all the different labs can be checked out for use. It has limited operating hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. due to a lack of staff. With the expansion of classes, labs occur later in the school day, yet the shop closes at 4 p.m.

For electrical engineering, expensive equipment is a necessary part of the education. A function generator, a multimeter and an oscilloscope are the bare minimum to run any engineering experiments according to Jose Romero, a student assistant who works in the stock room. 

“In mechanical engineering, there are alumni who come through who graduated from the 80s and say they used the exact same equipment,” Gonzalez said. Labs in the mechanical engineering department are filled with equipment that is either no longer functional or students and professors lack the proper training to use according to Romero.

“It boils down to equipment being so old that professors will have students not actually do experiments so that nothing gets further damaged,” Romero said. “The advice alumni gives is that the equipment we use here won’t be used in the industry and just to be ready to adapt and learn quickly once you’ve graduated.”  

Students doubt their engineering skills in a professional climate as they have to deal with these overbearing issues on top of their already demanding workload.

“Some of us don’t feel prepared to go into the workforce, because we don’t have the means in the department. Some of it is we don’t have the equipment necessary for our hand on type of work, it’s all barely operational,” Hanson said. “The other side is there is modern software you need to be proficient in going into a job out of college and the department can’t hire anyone to teach it because there is no money.”

“One of our peers interviewed for a job after graduating, and he was somewhat ridiculed by the interviewer,” Mello said. “‘Oh, you don’t know [the program] finite element analysis? How do you call yourself a mechanical engineer?’”

“We have little to no school support on helping to create engineering business connections. That is completely on a student’s initiative,” Mello said. “We [the engineering societies] now run a career fair to offer internships for students. We have to make the connections, maintain the relationships and put on the event by ourselves.” The societies brought in 15 companies last year for the career fair to help students get their foot through the door.

“The department is gasping for air with just enough to survive,” Mello said. “There’s enough oxygen to survive, but no quality of life.”

With Teh communicating with his students and their grievances, the issues in the department are acknowledged and improving. “I have been the director for a year and it is my goal to turn us into the best undergraduate engineering program in the bay area, nothing less than that,” Teh said.