Eric Albert Manufactures Fun
by Thomas Speicher
His desk functions as a graveyard for gadgets, gizmos and glue sticks. Books and batteries balance on his overflowing shelves. Countless cables cover his floor. What many would regard as clutter is inspiration for Eric Albert. The eclectic collection serves his inquisitive mind and inherent tendency to tinker.
Pennsylvania College of Technology students have benefited from Albert’s contagious curiosity for a quarter century. The associate professor of automated manufacturing and machining devotes his life in and out of the classroom to engaging tomorrow’s workforce.
“The thing I enjoy most about teaching is being able to help students not only see the usefulness of what they’re learning but to give them a vision for what might be beyond that,” Albert said. “I tell them that they are going to be solving problems, some of which we do not yet know. I want their experiences here to help them formulate an approach that hopefully will be successful in confronting those problems.”
Ironically, teaching wasn’t Albert’s primary focus when he began working at Penn College in 1991. The college hired him from Penn State to serve as department head of the manufacturing program and to create baccalaureate degrees in several technical fields.
Once the four-year majors became a reality, Albert took on a full-teaching load. Today, he specializes in metallurgy and rapid prototyping courses, but in the past, he has taught electronics, civil engineering, computer science and plastics classes.
The range of subjects reflects Albert’s diverse interests and experiences. His resume includes broadcast engineering work for the Penn State football radio network, while earning his master’s and doctorate in mining engineering at the university. He’s traveled to China to study manufacturing processes, surveyed for archaeological digs in the Middle East and consulted for numerous commercial products through Workforce Development & Continuing Education at the college.
According to Albert, those experiences have made him a better teacher, as has his willingness to fulfill college needs beyond the classroom. He’s served as a temporary dean, chief investigator for numerous state and federal grants, and STEM advocate for secondary students.
“Teaching is the primary focus, but if that’s all I did, I would be bored,” said Albert, who is seemingly unfazed by the multitude of broken computers and coffee makers scattered throughout his windowless office and awaiting his attention. “I look for opportunities to learn outside of class and ideas for student engagement. I’m always trying to improve things that students are involved with.”
The age of students makes no difference. For the past four years, Albert has been one of the driving forces behind the college’s SMART (Science and Math Applications in Real World Technologies) Girls program. The four-day, project-based, summer camp encourages high school girls to experience math and science as a foundation for careers in technology.
“SMART Girls is a creative outlet and challenges you to teach and encourage STEM to a different audience,” he said. “A lot of the girls do, in fact, get a vision for what they may be able to accomplish in STEM fields. It’s a fun, intense week.”
This past summer, Albert took his STEM commitment to a different area of campus and a much younger audience. Albert mentored rising first- and second-graders at the Dunham Children’s Learning Center during “Maker Week.” His wife, Barbara J. Albert, director of the Children’s Learning Center, asked him to devise a program similar to SMART Girls for the youngsters.
“It’s the old argument, if you can’t explain it to a 5-year old, you don’t know the subject well enough,” Albert said with a wide smile. “I had to think of what we could do creatively that would actually engage them in engineering and science topics that wasn’t a whiteboard full of math. So, we looked at hands-on activities that were in keeping with their abilities.”
In other words, the kids met their match. The man who has a Lego-constructed Minion atop his desk, along with a Matchbox car and many Magic Markers, adopted his “Mr. Wizard” persona in devising fun, yet educational, projects.
The budding engineers built small robots from pager motors, toothbrush heads and coin cell batteries; constructed structures with paper, tape, gumdrops and toothpicks; and designed objects using drag and drop software. The week culminated with the children manufacturing edible pancakes, courtesy of their ingenuity and CNC machines.
“The kids had a great week and had a lot of projects to show their parents. It was an early experience in science and technology, something challenging and stimulating for them,” he said.
For the past several years, Albert and his college students have been intellectually stimulated by additive manufacturing. Albert created the college’s rapid prototyping lab with the help of a grant and equipped it with scanners, laser cutters and several high-end 3-D printers, which “print” software-designed products layer by layer.
“We can make anything we want,” he said. “If we want to prototype a robot for SWORD (the college’s student robotic design club), let’s cook it up! If we want to make parts for auto restoration, no problem! If you can think of it, it can be manufactured by 3-D printing.”
In Albert’s case, that includes one of his favorite musical instruments to play: the violin. He’s made a couple of functional violins via 3-D printers.
“If you’re a purist, you might say that it doesn’t quite have that traditional violin sound. But the sound is more than acceptable within a modern music group,” he said.
Not all of Albert’s 3-D projects are high-end. An inch-high, plastic, orange alien, sporting a phaser aimed toward his computer screen, is proof of that.
In Albert’s world, it’s obvious that learning should be fun. As if on cue, he reaches in one of his jam-packed desk drawers and retrieves an Irish penny whistle that he taught himself to play.
Several notes and chuckles later, Albert does turn serious when discussing his students and how proud he is of their high job-placement rate. “That makes me feel great. Ultimately, if their goal is to become professionally employed, I want to make sure they have the skill set necessary to be successful,” he said.
While admitting he’s “no spring chicken,” Albert hopes to contribute to that skill set for at least a few more years. “My plan is to continue to improve at what I do and look for more opportunities that can be useful in the classroom. And have fun doing it,” he said.
In other words, cleaning his office will have to wait. Much tinkering remains to be done.
“If you think my office is bad, you don’t want to see my basement,” Albert laughed.
FYI with Eric Albert:
Community Involvement: He serves on the board of directors of Camp Susque and is vice president of the Williamsport Civic Chorus.
Musical Acumen: In addition to the violin and Irish penny whistle, he plays guitar and the mandolin.
Immediate Goal: Surviving the spring semester.
Fun Fact: He was once a regular Friday night air personality on WPSU Radio in State College.
Family Connection: Eric and Barbara Albert have three children: Michael, an aerospace engineer in California; Rebecca, a microbiologist in the Williamsport area; and Jason, a systems engineer in Texas.