Jennifer Ebert is an Associate Professor of Engineering. Professor Ebert began working at Union County College in 2004 after spending several years as an engineer in private industry. She loves to leverage her previous experiences to help guide and mentor her students. One of her greatest pleasures comes when she can induce “aha” moments in the classroom especially in challenging courses such as physics. Professor Ebert is the faculty advisor to the Green Revolution Club and is working with the Department of Energy to introduce Photovoltaics and Sustainability coursework at Union. She is also advisor to the Engineering Society. She has a master’s degree in Engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology..
Q: So female engineers—there aren’t a lot of you. How’d you wind up an engineer?
A: My dad’s an engineer, a chemical engineer. Actually—don’t tell anyone I’m saying this—but I originally wanted to go to art school. I love art. But in engineering, there’s certainly artistry. Take this, for example. (She gives her plastic-y necklace a twirl.) This is jewelry, created by our students using a 3D printer. It’s kind of like art.
Q: Do you think it’s harder for a female to break into engineering?
A: I think it’s a confidence thing. Students going into engineering need to understand that it’s a long, hard slog. It’s a hard field for everyone. I won’t lie—I struggled in school. I had to work harder than everyone else to get it together. I found I could do well with study groups, but it still wasn’t easy, especially compared to what I could have been doing to enter into a different career. I had to work hard for my degrees. On the other hand, my husband is a psychologist. He never even had to take trigonometry, while I’ve taken four different Calculus courses.
Q: So what would be a good reason for women to do what you did and go into engineering?
A: They need to understand that the time and effort they put into their studies is worth it. For engineers, there’s no such thing as a recession. There are a lot of working engineers. And you don’t necessarily have to be brilliant, like a Steve Jobs, to find your place in engineering. You can pretty much choose whatever field you find most interesting. I wasn’t interested in chemical engineering like my father, so I went into mechanical and industrial engineering. For my master’s degree, I studied the human computer—carpal tunnel—and ergonomics.
Q: So you actually worked as an engineer.
A: Yes. I worked for Lucent—Bell Labs. And then when I felt like jumping into education, having an engineering background enabled me to do it seamlessly.
Q: How did that play out, the transition to education?
A: Well, after Bell Labs, I began teaching high-school Physics in Kenilworth. And it was sort of a lucky accident that I decided to take a refresher course in Physics at Union County College. I got to meet Professor Gilbert, who was the department chair, and told him that I really would love to teach at the College. And Professor Gilbert remembered. It was, I think, three semesters later he called me and told me to put my money where my mouth is and show him that I can really teach. And so I did, first as an adjunct and then (in 2004) as full-time.
Q: So how’s being a professor stack up with your previous career as an engineer?
A: Teaching at the College is like a gift from God. I make a far bigger impact here with my students than I could ever make in any other profession. As a teacher, I can help my students go to a higher level. That’s literally happening with a club I’m advising, the Engineering Society. Our students recently launched their first rocket and it shot into the air more than 1,500 feet. And now the club is psyched to enter into a rocket-launching competition in June in Upstate New York. This is something the students wanted to do, and my role was to give them a “maker space” for them to use when they’re not in class.
Q: What do you mean by “maker space”?
A: It’s access to a room and equipment and physics tools—including the 3D printers—to enable students to explore their interests, and most important to have fun. I wish I had something like this while I was in school—a place to have fun and just to talk to one another outside of a classroom. One student is building an arcade machine based on his old Nintendo. And some of the students we have are just phenomenal. They’re just so smart and performing at such a high level. We have one who took a Physics course but was studying to be a Business major. It turns out, though, that he was really performing at such a high level in science that he wound up receiving a number of scholarship offers for engineering. This is what I mean by the true calling of a teacher, of being thrilled when you give your students the tools to surpass you. As I said, teaching is a gift from God.