UPPER BURRELL, Pa. — A riverbank cleanup, a voter registration drive and a homework hotline were some of the community projects displayed by Penn State New Kensington students April 30 in the campus’ Entrepreneurial Center in downtown New Kensington. The students were taking part in the city’s third “Better Block” celebration.
Better Block is an ongoing series of one-day events that highlight the revitalization of New Kensington’s business district. The section of Ninth and 10th streets bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues served as the “stage” for more than 60 vendors. The area featured food, crafts, children’s activities, pop-up businesses and musical entertainment.
Various campus student groups set up shop in the center and showcased their research and community activities. Nine students in a leadership in sustainability class, taught by Joan Kowalski, senior instructor in engineering, unveiled a design for a sign for the city of Arnold. The sign will display “Arnold” and stand on the eastern bank of the Allegheny River that borders the city. The construction project will serve as a beacon for water enthusiasts to visit the city.
Kowalski’s students — James Bailey, Aaron Carter, Brandon Gabler, David Green, Anthony Maiolo, Jonathan McCabe, Danielle Richardson, Cody Shoemaker, and Navarre Statam — prepared the site in early April by spending a day cleaning up debris, such as old tires and appliances, from the riverbank. The sign design and cleanup are a part of a larger initiative to improve Arnold.
A group of Kowalski’s engineering students used the front window of the center to present their summer research projects. Hannah Albright, Codi Belfield and Tyler Delancey were selected for the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, an initiative for engineering students at Penn State. The objective of the program is twofold: promote undergraduate research to broaden student education and establish collaboration between engineering professors at University Park and Commonwealth campuses. New Kensington is one of Penn State’s 19 Commonwealth campuses. The students will receive a stipend and work with Kowalski and professors from the University Park campus.
Albright’s project is called “Community Greenhouse.” The freshman engineering major proposes turning a pre-existing building into a greenhouse that will be viable throughout the year and inexpensive to maintain.
“I will use gutters for a water supply and windows for ventilation,” Albright said. “I want to take off the top half of the building and replace it with Plexiglas.”
After she works out some funding issues and completes the details, Albright plans to present the proposal to the New Kensington City Council. The New Kensington native and Valley High School graduate will ask the council to donate a building.
Albright is a member of the campus GREAT (Growing Regional Excellence through Experience, Academics and Training) program. In its fifth year, the initiative matches promising engineering and information sciences and technology students with local internship opportunities. The GREAT program is a partnership between the New Kensington campus and the Penn State Electro-Optics Center and industries within the greater Pittsburgh region. Unlike many other programs, GREAT provides qualified engineering students with the opportunity to build professional skills and experiences starting as soon as their first year at the campus. The advantages of freshmen internships are numerous. In lieu of an internship, Albright opted for the REU program.
My Vote Matters, a student organization established last semester to educate and register first-time voters, used the Entrepreneur Center as a base for a get-out-the-vote drive. The group, led by Millie Brasser, a sophomore corporate communications major, includes Kyle Waraks, Derrek Koblinsky, Broderick Gerano, Aaron Holness, Cecily Petrarca, Sarah Steighner, McCabe, and Richardson. The group is dedicated to enlightening young voters on the importance of getting involved in the political process, be it on a local, state or national level. My Vote Matters doesn’t espouse the views of any political party or candidate.
Prior to the April 26 Pennsylvania primaries, they signed up 125 new voters on campus. After the primaries, the group expanded its voter reach to the city of New Kensington. The Better Block event was the ideal venue to reach young nonregistered voters before the general elections in November. Twelve people joined the voter rolls at the event,
“I'm super proud to have been able to make a difference to our community through Better Block in New Kensington,” said Brasser, a sophomore corporate communications major. “It is so important to stay active as citizen and participate in our civic responsibilities especially when it comes to voting.”
The Entrepreneur Center also served as home for the inaugural public awareness campaign for the campus’ new Homework Hotline program. The initiative provides free math tutoring to students in local school districts. Geared to middle and high school students, the session will be offered by telephone or email on evenings throughout the school year.
Campus students with strong math skills, such as engineering and information sciences majors, are serving as tutors, guiding students through their homework problems by focusing on the terms and processes. Julie Wolfe, a geometry teacher at Highlands High School, is supervising the tutors. Homework Hotline began May 3, with Highlands’ students serving in the trial program. The hotline in its initial phase will be available from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
Burrell and New Kensington-Arnold school district students will be added in the fall when the complete pilot program is up and running. The focus will be on math courses that lead to calculus, such as algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Calculus and science courses will be added as the program expands. Tutoring will be conducted from 7 to 10 p.m., Sunday to Thursday, during the school year.
Entrepreneur Center fuels city’s revival
Better Block, a nationwide concept, is a grassroots effort for economic development. Communities that were once robust, such as New Kensington and Arnold, are targeted for renewal. The New Kensington campus is sparking the renewal process.
Led by Chancellor Kevin Snider, the campus began the first phase of its plan to revitalize downtown New Kensington in January with the start of the remodeling of the Entrepreneurial Center, which is located at 951 Fourth Avenue, in the former Harts Department Store.
When completed later in the year, the center will launch a business accelerator program to attract and nurture innovation and small business development across the Alle-Kiski Valley. The building will serve as an incubator for entrepreneurs.
The campus’ Alle-Kiski Economic Generator (AKEG) program is the delivery vehicle for affecting change in the city of New Kensington and the region. AKEG is a collaboration of students, faculty and campuses working with businesses and communities across the state to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians. AKEG is funded by a $50,000 grant from Invent Penn State, a new program that brings together Penn State’s intellectual resources, alumni, private and public businesses and investors to support the efforts.
“The Entrepreneur Center will bring energy, innovation and a sense of progress and quality not seen in the area in a long time,” Snider said. “Penn State New Kensington is committed to bringing economic development to New Kensington through entrepreneurship."
The 800 and 900 blocks of Fourth and Fifth avenues form the core of downtown New Kensington. As the city celebrates its 125th anniversary year, Mayor Tom Guzzo, a Penn State alumnus, is overseeing the area’s revitalization, which included the razing of vacant buildings to make existing buildings more viable. Last fall, PugDug’s Rock and Bead Shop moved from Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to the 900 block of Fifth Avenue.
(Information on the Arnold sign and cleanup courtesy of Danielle Richardson, author of the article “PSNK Students Help to Clean Up Arnold” that was published in the April 26 issue of The Nittany Pride, a campus student publication.)