Creating Their Own Paths

By Jill Cheatham

Have you ever stayed until the very end of a movie and watched all of the credits? Noticed the endless stream of names of every last person who worked on the movie? “I want to be one of those people,” Ellen Porter, a junior in computer science at OSU told me. “I don’t care if I’m the last name to roll by, I just want to be on the list.” She’s putting her love of graphics and animation to good use, and plans one day to work on just such a project for a company like DreamWorks. “No offense to Pixar; I LOVE Shrek,” she says. Ellen, an outgoing and extremely bright young woman is well on her way. She’s already learning to work with DreamWorks’ target audience — middle and high school students — on OSU’s TekPets project to get young people interested in computer science.

Ellen and Ben Porter Cut to the other side of Kelley Engineering Center — to the electrical and computer engineering side. Ben Porter, a junior, dreams of being his own boss. Unlike Ellen, he wants to design for a small company. “Is not as much about the money as what I’m working on,” he states. He wants to be able to choose his projects and play a large part in the design rather than build a small component of a larger project. Ben, surprisingly quiet and introverted for a TA for Electrical Fundamentals and a member of the robotics club, is very enthusiastic about his work here at OSU.

Although Ben and Ellen may seem like polar opposites, they’re actually brother and sister — two siblings who are making a great impact on OSU’s School of EECS. They came to Corvallis from the small town of Gilchrist, OR, about 45 miles south of Bend with a population around 500. The juniors started from, and ended up, in the same places, but their paths to OSU were very different. Ben started his post-high school career in community college, working towards an associate’s degree in computer information systems. Ellen, on the other hand, came straight to OSU as a Ford Family Foundation scholar.

As the pair progressed through their classes, Ben began to realize the difference in their situations. While Ellen was excited and enjoying her classes and projects, Ben found himself more and more unhappy, both with the work he was doing, and the direction he was headed. Tech support, while a great field, isn’t exactly an innovative one. He wanted to build things, design new things. Not answer someone’s questions. Finally, he decided to make a change. “I decided to come to OSU,” he said fondly. “Ellen kept telling me about all of the cool things she was doing.” He wanted to be a part of something like that; something he really enjoyed.

The idea behind this is that students who grow up in small towns like I did can still have the experience. They won’t need a lot of money to try out engineering. Ben has found what he was looking for: projects and classes he loves and movement in a direction that will eventually land him in a job that he wants. Many students who come to a large college for the first time feel intimidated. A big school like OSU may seem like an impossible place to get noticed if you aren’t an outgoing person. Ben has proven that this isn’t the case. His class work and dedication speak for themselves and have landed him a coveted teaching assistant (TA) position where he’s helped countless other students.

Ellen, on the other hand, has used her outgoing personality to inspire young adults — particularly girls — into becoming future computer scientists and engineers. The TekPets program, of which she is a lead developer, is a two-week summer program where middle and high schoolers build a fully functional robot that looks and acts like an animal. What starts out as a circuit board and a few LEDs, ends up being a fully programmed robot that responds to touch, sound, and other external stimuli. Ellen’s goal is to bring engineering to small towns like her own Gilchrist. “The idea behind this is that students who grow up in small towns like I did can still have the experience. They won’t need a lot of money to try out engineering.”

Somehow, between mentoring, recruiting, teaching, coding, and designing, they still have time to enjoy their work. Both them share the same goal to spread their love of engineering to as many as possible — including small towns like Gilchrist. “There are so many opportunities for funding and scholarships.” Ellen remarks. Many students, especially in small towns, don’t have the resources such as counselors and recruiters to know their options. Ben remembers “Someone told me, no matter what, just go. If you have to take out loans, just go. When I first came here I had no idea how long I could stay. I applied. I moved in with my sister, then figured out the rest.”



About the Author
Jill Cheatham is a Post-Baccalaureate student in electrical and computer engineering, with a previous degree in opera. Currently she serves as an Ambassador for the College of Engineering, recruiting other students to OSU. She is also chair and founder of the Women of EECS, a group that fosters relationships between female faculty and students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. While at OSU, she plans to pursue a degree in the new Sustainability and Renewable Energy Track. When not working or studying, she enjoys running, tennis, and obviously singing.