Speaking contest incites skillful presentations by engineering students


On Wednesday, Jan. 27, students, faculty and community members gathered in a bustling auditorium to hear a collection of technical talks from some of the most polished and inspired speakers on the University Park campus of Penn State.

The presenters, contrary to what one may guess, were not professional lecturers or seasoned communicators. Rather, they comprised of eight undergraduate engineering students vying for the first place title at the bi-annual Leonhard Center Speaking Contest.

The contest, in its seventh offering, provides young engineers with an opportunity to present engineering solutions to societal issues. This year, topics ranged from human health and medicine including: minimally invasive surgical techniques, stem cell therapy and 3D bioprinting; to transportation and sustainability interests including: Hyperloop transportation, solar roadways and innovative solutions to solve growing energy demands.

“I believe the Leonhard Center Speaking Contest is a jewel in the College of Engineering,” said Michael Alley, professor of engineering and the contest’s creator. “It gives some of our strongest communicators an opportunity to come together to represent the college.”

The contest begins each semester with nearly 300 students enrolled in special engineering sections of the course CAS 100, Introduction to Speech Communication. Throughout the semester, students are taught strategies to successfully convey technical information, and after a round of semi-finals, eight finalists are invited to participate in the contest, which is held at the beginning of the subsequent semester.

While all eight contestants who spoke at the spring 2016 contest showcased original and well-executed presentations, sophomore Paul Butrico stood out with his talk on mushroom packaging as a sustainable alternative to styrofoam.

“The Leonhard Center Speaking Contest experience has made me a much better public speaker,” said Butrico. “It’s incredible to think of how much I’ve grown since I first gave the topic proposal back in the first several weeks of CAS 100—it is just awesome. “

Additional stand-outs in the competition included second place winner, Cayla Castells, and audience choice award winners, Andrew Getsy and Drew Higgins.

For many students, a decipherable increase in confidence and professionalism is the biggest take-away from their involvement in the contest.

Castells, who delivered a presentation on solar roadways, said, “Preparing for the Leonhard Center Speaking Contest has drastically affected the way I handle myself in front of others and my public speaking abilities.”

In addition to the newly discovered confidence found by many, Alley also credits advanced presentation skills as a segue for new opportunity. 

“There are some incredible opportunities available to students with adept speaking skills,” Alley stated. “We get emails all the time from students that say  ‘I gave the best presentation at my internship,’ or ‘my company was really blown away with the talk I prepared,’ and it is largely due to our classes. That is really our main goal—to raise the bar for communication within the college.”

Also notable is that the contest is largely organized by students in the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Experiences in Engineering (Utree) organization at Penn State. The organization, advised by Alley, includes many former contest participants and exists to enhance professional skills and research experiences for undergraduates in the College of Engineering.

This year, the organization was able to align the contest with the Engineering Career Fair to maximize attendance by campus visitors and industry professionals.

In the future, Alley hopes the contest will extend beyond the College of Engineering to potentially include other scientific and technical disciplines.  He would also like to see high-quality video presentations from the contest utilized by other colleges and universities as learning tools.

“We’ve noticed that since we started this contest, it does more than any other single teaching component to strengthen the level of presentations,” said Alley. “The results are just remarkable.”

This year’s contestants were:

First place: Paul Butrico – sophomore, chemical engineering

Second place: Cayla Castells – sophomore, mechanical engineering

Audience Choice Winners:

Andrew Getsy – sophomore, computer engineering

Drew Higgins – sophomore, computer science

Other contestants:

Luke Amory – senior, biomedical engineering

Mary Glover – junior, nuclear engineering

Morgan Shires – sophomore, chemical engineering

Daniel Yang – sophomore, industrial engineering


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Mindy Krause


First place finalist, Paul Butrico

First place finalist, sophomore and chemical engineering student, Paul Butrico, presents his talk on mushroom packaging as a sustainable alternative to Styrofoam. 

Cayla Castells Second place finalist, mechanical engineering student, Cayla Castells, talks about solar roadways as a solution to reduce road salt use in Pennsylvania.

“The Leonhard Center Speaking Contest experience has made me a much better public speaker. It’s incredible to think of how much I’ve grown since I first gave the topic proposal back in the first several weeks of CAS 100. It is just awesome.”
—Paul Butrico



The Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering, established in 1948, is recognized as one of the largest and most influential chemical engineering departments in the nation.

The department is built upon the fundamentals of academic integrity, innovation in research, and commitment to the advancement of industry.

Department of Chemical Engineering

119 Greenberg Complex

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2574