Behind the scenes with PREP
For Matthew Brueckmann (ME’15), the road to becoming an amusement park engineer began in his own backyard. Growing up in Fullerton, California, which is less than 10 miles away from Disneyland, he would spend a few afternoons a week there — a ritual that’s added up to 1,000 visits over his lifetime — and then go home and watch the park’s fireworks light up the night sky.
Like a lot of kids, Brueckmann was entranced with how Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and other amusement parks could transport him to another world. But his fascination was beyond mere entertainment.
“I always wanted to know how the effects worked, like the finale of the Indiana Jones ride, when the rolling ball comes out in front of you and you feel like you’re within inches of that ball,” he says. “Then I found out that there are people who do this work for a living…everything from dreaming up the rides to the artistry and doing the technical calculations to make sure the rides work.” In high school, he wrote a letter to Great Coasters International, a roller coaster company based in Pennsylvania, asking about career opportunities — an annual ritual he kept for years.
Now Brueckmann builds rides and attractions. The foundation for his career was set while participating in Berkeley Engineering’s PREP program, which gives undergraduate students the academic and professional resources they need to thrive. This summer, Brueckmann returned to campus to share his engineering expertise and to give current PREP students a tour of how amusement parks work.
Boot camp for engineering students
Founded more than 20 years ago (then called “Boot Camp”), PREP aims to equip students with the tools they need to be successful in adjusting to life as engineering students. It combines academic preparation (lectures in math, chemistry and computer science) with workshops on physical/mental wellness (how to be resilient, mental techniques athletes employ to manage stress) and public speaking. They also learn how to build a professional network during their college years.
“A lot of students who come into PREP don’t have anyone in their family or network back home who can help them get through their first year of college, because they might be the first one in their family to attend,” says Marvin Lopez, the college’s director of student programs who runs PREP with Tiffany Reardon, associate director of student retention. “Our program gives students the chance to develop a social network of peers who can help each other out during their four years at Berkeley.”
This year, PREP was extended from two to three weeks to incorporate its first-ever design challenge. The new module challenged students to prototype a solution to a real-world problem. Then, they pitched it to a panel of companies that included Chevron, PG&E, Bechtel, Pixar and San Ramon-based startup incubator, Bishop Ranch Innovation Intelligence Accelerator.
“When you come in as a young engineering student, you have to solve problem sets immediately,” says civil and environmental engineering professor Scott Moura, a 2002 PREP alum who developed the module with Lopez. “But that’s really disjointed from developing an identity as an engineer, where you evaluate societal problems, define the problem you want to solve and use analytical skills to rapidly ideate, develop a prototype, test it and iterate into an improved design.”
The design challenge — which was launched in partnership with the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation — also gave the students the experience of working in teams, a required skill for professional engineers.
Designing for fun
Brueckmann understands just how valuable those challenges can be. Today, he works out of Los Angeles as a technical designer for The Nassal Company, which is headquartered in Orlando and specializes in themed environment design for rides or attractions at amusement parks, zoos or museums. His work ranges from designing structures that support objects (such as characters that pop out in rides and themed environments, for example), to set and scene design.
So when Brueckmann returned to Berkeley, he explained how he used his experience at PREP and Berkeley Engineering degree to springboard into the career of his dreams (he eventually landed an internship at Great Coasters International, the company he wrote to as a young student).
In addition to giving PREP participants a guided tour of California’s Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, he also developed a set of engineering-related questions for the students to ponder as they enjoyed the rides and visited the park’s attractions.
“We discussed the questions in teams, based on discipline,” Brueckmann says. “The electrical engineering and computer science students talked about the control systems for the rides, the bioengineers discussed how the rides could be accessible or adapted to people with disabilities, and the mechanical and civil engineers analyzed dynamics and construction.”
For the PREP students, visiting Great America added another experience of how to solve engineering problems in the real world. But both Brueckmann and Moura agree that the personal connections they made during the program are what stand out most.
“Without a doubt, the most important part of PREP is the community that it creates,” Moura says. He didn’t realize the long-term value until many years later, he adds, when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan and applying for the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.
Moura received the prestigious award. He gives a lot of credit for his success to fellow PREP alum Monisha Brown (B.S.’06 CEE), who was also a Michigan doctoral student in engineering at the time.
“We were in the [PREP] boot camp together, and the year before I applied, she won the NSF fellowship. She helped me by sitting down and sharing tips with me,” he says.
The very next year after he received the NSF fellowship, Moura said, he followed suit by assisting fellow PREP student and University of Michigan engineering Ph.D. student Franklin Dollar (B.S.’06 Eng. Physics) with his NSF application. Dollar won the award.
And for Brueckmann, who continues to explore new avenues in amusement park engineering, PREP can also help future engineers identify a passion and focus on how to use their profession for social good.
“I wanted to learn how to use my engineering background to help others,” he says. “Having the driving force of working for theme parks was what ultimately pushed me harder. It made me look more in-depth to what I was learning and how it would apply to what I wanted to do.”