Summer Studies In Session At Penn Engineering’s ESAP

By Emily Schalk

Students in ESAP’s Computer Graphics course go through all of the stages of the production pipeline used in animation and gaming.

Every summer, for just three weeks, Penn Engineering transforms from a quiet research hub into a buzzing pre-college campus.

Here, qualifying high school students in the Engineering Summer Academy at Penn (ESAP) have the opportunity to take an intensive summer engineering course for college credit. The Penn program graduated 221 students this year, and each will go on to college with a head start in their fields.

ESAP offers classes in Biotechnology, Complex Networks, Computer Graphics, Computer Science, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. But when it was initially established as the Summer Academy for Applied Sciences and Technology (SAAST) in 2003, it offered only one: Computer Graphics. Mark van Langeveld has been teaching that class since the program was founded, though during the year he is actually an Entertainment Arts Engineering professor at the University of Utah.

“I keep coming back because of the students,” van Langeveld says.

His Computer Graphics students spend most of their three weeks working on a summer project, developing a three-dimensional character in Autodesk Maya. By the end of the program, they are able to design, sculpt, model, and rig a character, gaining literacy in each stage of the production pipeline used in animation and gaming.

“And more important for me is that they’ll be able to do this again,” van Langeveld says. “When they come into a program like Penn’s and they take the equivalent of this class, they’ll be superstars.”

One of those superstars is Residential Teaching Assistant (RTA) Adam Canarick, a Penn Engineering sophomore who attended ESAP as a high school student in 2016.

“ESAP was one of my favorite summers,” Canarick says. “And the fun I had at ESAP really relied on my RTAs. So I knew when I got into Penn that it was what I wanted to do with my first summer. It’s also a really good learning experience. I’m learning so much from watching Mark, helping the kids, and problem-solving with them. It’s a different type of learning.”

Van Langeveld and the RTAs kept their students busy with classes, labs, outings into the city, and a field trip to major animation studio Blue Sky.

“I know it’s only three weeks, but we learned a lot,” says Dylan Johnson, a student in the Computer Graphics class. “It’s crazy the stuff we’ve gone through. We literally created an entire human being in 3D. That’s awesome.”

“Those early experiences are really special,” says van Langeveld. “I know that this is true, because not only do they tell me, but on the last day the parents come in and pull me to the side and say, ‘I don’t know what you did to this kid, but you hit some note that they needed to hear, and they know what they want to do all of a sudden. They worked all day and wouldn’t call us because they were too busy doing their projects.’”

“Honestly it doesn’t feel like that much work when you’re actually doing it,” says Cindy Xu, another Computer Graphics student. “But during the last few days we all had to grind pretty hard and work some late nights to put everything together and finalize our projects.”

For the ESAP students now dreaming of returning to Penn Engineering for their undergraduate studies, those three weeks are just a taste of what could be in store.