By David Kligman
MERCED — The University of California, Merced honored PG&E today (Jan. 31) with its inaugural Vanguard Award to thank the utility for its $1 million donation to the School of Engineering.
The honor is a special one since it’s the first awarded by the Vanguard, a collection of student presidents of the campus’ nine engineering organizations, including groups dedicated to women engineers, robotics and biomedicine.
PG&E President Chris Johns accepted the award during a seminar of senior engineering students at UC Merced, which became the 10th and newest University of California campus in 2005. The school’s top administrators, students and city and county officials also attended.
Johns said PG&E was proud to receive the award knowing that PG&E’s involvement is so important to Merced.
“This school means a lot to the state and to the community,” Johns said. “It provides a lot of vitality to this area. And it means a lot to the Central Valley because this is now a place where the great minds are being developed that will be the leaders of the future.”
‘Transform the education experience’
School of Engineering Dean Dan Hirleman, who presented the award along with senior mechanical engineering student and Vanguard president Mark Lazarro, said the partnership with PG&E is a gift for students and the San Joaquin Valley.
“We’re looking for partner companies that have made a difference to transform the education experience of the students,” Hirleman told Currents. “We wanted to recognize the companies that have really gone the extra mile. PG&E was hands down the winner.”
Following the award ceremony, Johns and Kirk Johnson, PG&E’s vice president of gas transmission maintenance and construction, answered questions from the students at the standing-room-only seminar. Johnson encouraged them to consider a career at PG&E. In fact, he said, every person in a top position in his organization has an engineering degree.
“No matter what role you take on and no matter where you decide to go, the engineering background that you’re getting here today can benefit you across the board at a big company like PG&E,” he said.
PG&E grant created opportunities
PG&E has provided more than $80 million in grants since 2001 for education and to organizations for environmental and general community purposes. But the UC Merced contribution, announced in 2007 and ending this year, is one of PG&E’s largest donations to any organization in its service territory.
UC Merced’s partnership with PG&E has created countless opportunities for engineering students to positively impact their communities and has helped the university recruit and retain students.
The donation expanded the school’s Engineering Service Learning Lab, named for PG&E, where students design engineering solutions for hospitals, public TV stations, blood banks and other community partners. Research included developing a new valve used in the intravenous treatment of infant patients in intensive care at Children’s Hospital of Central California.
Their most recent project is developing kiosks for the San Joaquin River to show visitors the impact of humans and climate change on the river, which extends from Fresno to Sacramento.
Benefits include prototypes, tutoring and more
Students also use the lab as a machine shop to construct prototypes of their projects, as a hub to meet with faculty mentors and to write reports and presentations on the lab’s computers. PG&E even assisted one of the student groups — the Society of Automotive Engineers — in a student competition to design and build a Formula race car.
Funds from the grant have supported student projects, tutoring and mentoring programs, a community garden and travel to national conferences for workshops.
But PG&E’s aid has been more than financial. The utility hosted a career day to talk to engineering students about jobs at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. And PG&E provided the school with two natural-gas-powered cars for its fleet.
“It hasn’t been easy to start up a school in the economic climate we’ve been in the past few years,” said Tom Harmon, associate dean of engineering. “So it’s incredibly encouraging to know that one of the major players in the state of California is behind us.”
E-mail David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.