First class of 4-year engineering graduates prepare for the future

Skylar Barthelmes, Matt Foster and Ryan Sienerth were the first to graduate with a B.S. in engineering from Elon

Scholars, athletes, a returning student, now engineers: The three members of the first class of Elon’s four-year engineering program took different paths to their degrees, but all three are prepared for the future.

Skylar Barthelmes, Matt Foster and Ryan Sienerth were awarded their bachelor of science degrees in engineering Friday after years of research, study and close interaction with classmates and faculty.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better first group of students,” said Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter. “I’d put them up against engineering students I’ve taught at other universities any day. They are tough and they are gritty, very much what we expect out of an engineering student. We can throw them difficult problems to solve. They don’t shy away from those. They face those.”

It’s notable that two of the three are celebrated student-athletes, with Foster being named the 2019 Colonial Athletic Association’s Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year and Barthelmes recognized by the CAA as Institutional Scholar-Athlete for 2020.

Skylar Barthelmes

Future plans

Barthelmes will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute to pursue a master of science degree in mechanical engineering.

School records

A member of the women’s track and field team, Barthelmes broke her own school record in the weight throw, tossing a personal-best mark of 58 feet, 4 inches (17.78m) at the Liberty Kickoff on Jan. 24. She also holds a school record in the hammer throw of 180 feet, 11 inches. She earned a number of CAA and all-league recognitions in track and field.

Research topics

Senior research: Transdermal nicotine absorption. “With the help of the professors, the three students worked in the lab to set up new machines and run initialization tests,” she said. “During the second semester, we were prepared to run testing with pig skin but due to not being on campus, we were unable to complete the project.”

Summer research: Research assistant for Wolter, studying the power and energy required to kill parasitic eggs in wastewater in third-world countries using electroporation.

Why Elon engineering?

As an athlete, Barthelmes wanted to spend all four years competing with the Elon Phoenix. She switched majors, from chemistry, her sophomore year when the four-year program became available.

“The most rewarding part of my time at Elon has been being a part of classes the first time they have been taught,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to help professors alter their classes and methods of teaching classes. It has felt that I have helped shape the future of the four-year degree at Elon.”

Most valuable student experience:

“Through the Engineering Design for Service course, I was able to work with a senior day center,” she said. “I designed a walker basket with a tray table. I had noticed that walker baskets that are normally used hinder the ability to use the walker correctly. Tray tables that are used with walkers inhibit the ability to use the walker while using the try table. I developed the basket to attach in the front of the walker and added the tray table to be accessible when using the walker for mobility. The tray is hinged so it easily folds down when the user wants to.

“Through my independent research I developed different inserts into the tray table to allow for cup holders, or different indents. It adapted to a glass, a mug, a cup itself to hold loose items, and an insert to make a flush table,” Barthelmes said.

“With this experience I was able to find an issue and develop a new product to solve this issue,” she said. “I was able to see the whole project come from idea to actual prototype. This made me realize the excitement that I have for developing products and making an impact in the lives of many people. I was able to bring the prototype from class and develop it further with individual research.”

What faculty said

Wolter: “She’s very bright, and fast at picking up concepts. She’s a deep thinker. You can see her processing things. I worked with her in the lab last summer, and by the end, she’d done all the research required for the year.”

Associate Professor of Engineering Sirena Hargrove-Leak: “I met her in the Engineering Design for Service course and was so impressed by her combination of understanding first-hand the importance of creating solutions for people with physical challenges because her mother is an occupational therapist. She’s modest, bright and talented, and wants to use her gifts and skills to help people. Watch out for her.”

Parting words

“I truly feel that I have developed a close working relationship with all the professors in the department,” she said. “All of my professors had some impact on my time at Elon, whether that be in research, classes, or extracurriculars. I just want to say a big thank you to all the faculty and staff that I have worked with. Although this is not how I expected my time at Elon to end, I am extremely grateful for every experience that I have had and cannot wait to see what the future holds for the Engineering Program.”

Matt Foster

Future plans

Foster, a standout tight end for the Elon Phoenix, is currently pursuing opportunities to play for the National Football League. In January, he participated in the College Gridiron Showcase All-Star Week in Dallas for NFL scouts. He is also pursuing employment in the engineering field.

Claim to fame

Foster and classmate Michael Borucki ’20 secured a provisional U.S. patent for their design improving drug delivery through transdermal patches. Testing their design, which began as part of a class project but was advanced through months of extracurricular research, was to be engineering’s first senior capstone project until the pandemic closed campus.

Research topics

Beyond the transdermal patch and drug-delivery design and research, Foster participated in Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program between his sophomore and junior years, working with Assistant Professor of Engineering Rich Blackmon to build an optical coherence tomography machine, “basically, a high-definition medical imaging system.” Blackmon and students continue to research how to use OCT to scan for and treat cancer cells. Foster also wrote the computer code that controls the user interface.

“We built it from scratch,” Foster said. “We went in with a computer and an empty table and left with a full machine up and running. I’ve talked to people and I realize that’s more than a lot of people get to do as an undergraduate.”

Why Elon engineering?

Originally a physics major, Foster transitioned to the four-year engineering program after it was established his sophomore year.

“It all seemed tailor-made for me, so I hopped right over,” he said. “Coming out of high school, I was really interested in science in general. When I was choosing colleges, wanted to pick somewhere with both options: physics and engineering. Elon was the best combination of a good school, good football, a scholarship and a good physics program.”

Foster says each of the program’s four professors helped him learn and grow as a researcher and engineer. He appreciates their trust and faith in him. He is especially grateful to Assistant Professor Jonathan Su, for advising the research into the transdermal patch design, and Wolter for taking on the project and connecting him to engineering resources beyond Elon.

“I could say great things about every single one of them,” he said.

On balancing school, life and athletics

“Part of it has to come from inside you,” he said. “You have to sacrifice certain things if you want something. It helped that Elon has such individualized learning, and that professors are available to you. But the No. 1 way, and what I say to freshmen on the team: Honestly, you’re going to be living with other football players, and they will have different majors than you. You’ve got to be OK with them being done with homework at 9 p.m. and you’re working until 2 a.m. That’s the way you have to look at it. It’s not unfair, it’s just the way it is.”

What faculty said

Hargrove-Leak: “My best memory of Matt is that I was late leaving McMichael one night and he was in the common area writing on a whiteboard. He’d written a timeline for all his classes and outlined every assignment he had that semester so he could schedule time to complete each of them. He is thoughtful and caring. He has a gentle spirit and a great work ethic that will serve him well, whether that’s in service of people or somewhere else.”

Wolter: “Matt is very poised, very responsible. He’s a leader in the classroom and very intelligent. I could see it in his coursework and in his communication of the knowledge he’d acquired.”

Parting words

“It’s nice to know we’re getting a degree that’s growing in prestige. It will hold more weight as time goes on and Elon’s engineering program grows.

“I’ve been very lucky to have chosen Elon. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Ryan Sienerth

Why Elon engineering?

“I’ve been an engineering major since before (Elon) even considered the four-year program,” Sienerth said. “Back in high school, we had a drafting course that was a prerequisite for two branches of learning: architecture and engineering. I went on to the engineering branch and that was my first experience with (computer-aided design) programs. I knew from that course that I wanted to go into nanoengineering.”

Research topics

“I was working with Dr. Wolter and Dr. Su on electroporating skin tissue to allow delivery of larger molecule drugs,” he said. “I spent a sizeable portion of time just trying to acquire materials, like a water bath, electrode, things of that nature. No matter how much I did, it felt like I wanted to do more.”

On returning to Elon to pursue a degree

Sienerth took several years off before returning to finish his undergraduate degree. He always intended to pursue engineering, he said, and returned to Elon when the four-year program began.

“The engineering program has changed a lot since my first year, way back in 2012,” said Sienerth, who took time off after initially enrolling at Elon.

“We have professors, classes, and requirements we didn’t have back then. When I left Elon back in 2016, the Maker Hub was still finding its footing. I’ve had to play a little bit of catch-up since my return. I think it’s on the right track. It seems like they’re regularly taking feedback from students.”

The value of service

“I really enjoyed designing and creating something in the Engineering Design for Service class,” Sienerth said. “I subscribe to the philosophy that as Engineering students, we should not be just encouraged, but required, to build, create, program real, practical objects.”

Sienerth and a partner designed and built an apparatus to assist a client with limited mobility bag items at their place of employment. As part of the process, Sienerth observed the client at their job where he saw they also needed a sturdier basket to transport items by scooter and designed that.

What faculty said

Wolter: “Ryan is very passionate and devoted to our students. He’s devoted to his friends. He has a natural love for science. He doesn’t just learn something to learn it. He really wants to dig in and understand the concepts above and beyond the required learning. In our capstone course, he really embraced the project. Ryan was the lead on one component of that research. He went to a local machine shop to get electrodes fabricated. He championed how we were going to acquire porcine tissue, pig skin, for our drug transport studies. He loves doing research. He’s just getting underway in his career.”

Hargrove-Leak: “He has a huge heart. He goes out of his way to help people. He’s older than his years. Ryan has had these rich life experiences that other students have not had. He spent time away from Elon and worked at a manufacturing facility. Ryan does an amazing job of bringing his perspectives to class and sharing them with students.”

Words of wisdom

“I think the single most important lesson you can learn in anything is how to fail up,” Sienerth said. “We don’t teach kids that, because it’s hard to teach if someone hasn’t heard it all their life. So many kids, myself included, grew up being told, ‘Oh, you better not fail, you better not slip up.’

“But I think that’s bogus,” he said. “Failure is one of the best things that can happen to you. Failure is the only path to growth. We teach kids to avoid failure at all costs, and they internalize it, and so when they fail, it’s not a learning experience. It’s a reflection of themselves. If someone is reading this, know that it’s okay to fail. Use that failure to identify where you’re weak, and shore up those defenses, and come back stronger every time.”