PREP student present their cornerstone project designsPREP student present their cornerstone project designs to professors, alumni, staff and students. (ESS photo)

Prepping students to become Berkeley engineers

April 2, 2019 by Linda Vu
Scott Moura

Professor Scott Moura watching PREP students present their cornerstone design projects. (ESS photo)

Every summer, about 120 incoming Berkeley Engineering students from nontraditional backgrounds arrive on campus to participate in the Pre-Engineering Program (PREP) and Transfer Pre-Engineering Program (T-PREP), which aim to prepare students for a successful academic experience.

To introduce students to the academic rigors of Berkeley Engineering, these programs provide a primer course load of calculus, chemistry, design and programming languages in three weeks, with an emphasis on time management and problem solving skills. Students also build a community of peers for academic and emotional support, learn about the resources at Berkeley Engineering and participate in professional development activities to prepare for future internships.

“At the beginning of the programs, we make the objective very clear to our students,” said Scott Moura (B.S.’06 ME), who teaches the design lab portion of PREP and T-PREP. “The point of this experience is to give you an accelerated, stimulated version of your fall semester in two-to-three weeks, not just so you can get a head start on your classes, but also to develop the skills that will make you successful in Berkeley Engineering.”

Moura actually participated in PREP’s predecessor program, called Boot Camp, the summer before his first year at Berkeley. After earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Moura continued his education at the University of Michigan, eventually earning his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He then returned to Berkeley as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Back on campus, Moura wanted to add something new, exciting and impactful to PREP. He worked with Marvin Lopez, Director of Engineering Student Programs, and Tiffany Reardon, Associate Director for Engineering Excellence Programs, to develop a cornerstone design component, which he has been teaching every summer.

“The best part of being an engineer is actually building stuff, but for most students, they don’t actually get to do that until their senior year of college,” said Moura. “To keep these students engaged in engineering, especially through the prerequisite courses, I suggested that we add a cornerstone project at the beginning of their college careers, so they know what they’re working toward.”

According to Reardon, the bonds and support networks that students form and rely on during PREP and T-PREP often lasts throughout their time and Berkeley and beyond. In fact, some alumni from these programs continue to support PREP and T-PREP long after they’ve graduated.

“The participation of alumni is what makes the program so impactful,” said Reardon. “When a student from an earlier cohort sees a student wearing a PREP or T-PREP shirt, it’s like this instant connection.”

Stories from recent teachers and participants confirm the lasting value and impact of the PREP and T-PREP programs:

Brian Salazar, PREP ’11

Brian Salazar

Brian Salazar (Photo by Linda Vu/Berkeley Engineering)

Raised in South Central Los Angeles, Brian Salazar (B.S.’15, M.S.’17 ME) was introduced to engineering through his high school’s Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program. For four years, he participated in MESA’s Solar Cup, helping to build a solar-powered boat for competition. This experience solidified his interest in engineering, with a dream to study it at Berkeley.

After he was admitted to Berkeley in 2015, Salazar was invited to participate in PREP.

“The best thing about PREP is that it prepared me for the academic rigor of UC Berkeley engineering classes,” said Salazar. “In high school, I could go to classes, not really study and do just fine. In PREP and in college, that’s not possible. You have to constantly be studying. PREP is where I started doing study groups and where I learned valuable time management skills.”

Salazar, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Berkeley, spent this past summer helping Moura teach PREP’s design lab.

“I wanted to give back to the PREP program and help students because I got so much out of it. I can pretty clearly remember myself when I was back in PREP, so whenever I’m preparing for PREP, I try to think about whether this is a topic that students are going to excited about,” said Salazar. “. Being on this side of PREP, I appreciate now that the teachers put in just as much effort into the program that students do.”

Xavier Balladarez, PREP ’19

Xavier Balladarez

Xavier Balladarez (ESS photo)

When he was a teenager, Xavier Balladarez’s (B.S.’22 EECS) family moved back to Tijuana, Mexico. He stayed in San Diego, living with his grandfather’s business partner, but became homeless when the partners had a falling out. For an extended period of time, he was taken in by friends and teachers — living in about seven different homes.

Yet Balladarez found a home for his interests in his school’s robotics lab. He taught himself to program robots and, in 2017, was a Dean’s List Award winner in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Through this competition, he formed a network that would eventually help him develop robotics programs for students in his hometown of Tijuana.

When selecting a college, Balladarez chose Berkeley because the engineering program emphasized developing technologies for social good. The summer before his freshman year, he participated in PREP.

“I appreciated so much of my PREP experience, it’s hard to put it into words. In the design lab, Scott Moura taught me that aside from skillsets, part of the engineering design process is empathy. We need to see if there is a market for doing things that are meaningful and impactful, that will make the world better. Ultimately, I learned what it means to be a Berkeley Engineer,” said Balladarez.

PREP also taught him the proper way to take notes. “In PREP they taught us to be more organized with our notes. To take them in class and then summarize them when we got home. At first, I didn’t see the point of this, but after some practice I realized how much more I actually learned. This skill is now instrumental for any class that I take at Cal.”

Samantha Adams, T-PREP ’19

Samantha Adams

Samantha Adams (ESS photo)

Samantha Adams (B.S.’20 EECS) was raised in the Central Valley but has lived across the state. During the Great Recession of 2008, her father lost his job, forcing her whole family to relocate to San Diego where he could find work.

After high school, she was unsure of what she wanted to do with her life. She worked with children for a number of years while taking classes, traveling and eventually working in information technology (IT). This job reminded Adams how much she loved computers and technology, so she decided to attend community college to pursue her passion in computing. After finishing her degree, she enrolled at Berkeley after being awarded both the Regents’ and Chancellor’s scholarships.

“I had never set foot on the UC Berkeley Campus until T-PREP. Part of why this program was so important was because I was so unfamiliar with everything,” said Adams. “As an older transfer student, T-PREP was great because it made me realize that I am not alone.”

She credits T-PREP with helping her find her community and support network.

“A lot of the classes that I’m taking are full of 18- and 19-year-olds. As a transfer student, I think it would have been disheartening to see all of these 18-year-olds while also feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing, this is all new,” said Adams. “But having this community of transfer students, I can see that we are all going through this together. Because it’s a packed two-week program, you form connections really quickly.”

Eldon Schoop, T-PREP ’13

Eldon Schoop

Eldon Schoop (Photo courtesy CITRIS)

Growing up in Los Angeles, Eldon Schoop (B.S.’16 EECS) had an unconventional educational journey. After one year in high school, he dropped out because he didn’t feel challenged and enrolled in community college, eventually transferring to Berkeley to study engineering.

The summer before his first year, Schoop became part of the inaugural cohort of T-PREP students. Overall, he had a great experience and credits it with helping him plan out his time at Berkeley and introducing him to resources. The program also helped acquaint him with the academic expectations of Berkeley Engineering classes, so they seemed less daunting.

“Being a transfer student is like your parents dropping you off at Disneyland when everything is free and there are no lines, then telling you that you only have 15 minutes to enjoy yourself.” said Schoop. “The problem is not choosing what you want to do, it’s choosing what will turn down because there is not enough time to do everything. T-PREP definitely helped me plan my time and courses here, so as an undergrad I could do study abroad, an internship, research, be actively involved in the EECS honors society HKN and start a company.”

Schoop is now working toward a Ph.D. in computer science at Berkeley and last summer, he co-taught the T-PREP design lab with Moura.

“T-PREP was an extremely significant, positive and impactful experience for me, and in many ways it helped shape my college career,” said Schoop. “As an instructor, it is so incredibly satisfying to give back and watch new students pick up so much in such a short amount of time. The level of growth that T-PREP students undergo in just two weeks is impossible to expect of anyone else. It makes me feel so incredibly proud.”