PLTW Alumnus Spotlight: Michelle Brus

For nearly 25 years, PLTW has offered transformative classroom and learning experiences for PreK-12 students. Now, many of those students are professionals in STEM fields. We recently reached out to several PLTW alumni to learn more about their educational and career journeys and find out what advice they have for current PLTW students. If you are a PLTW alumnus interested in sharing your story, we’d love to hear from you here.

Michelle Brus lives in Dubuque, Iowa, and works as an Operator Station Product Verification and Validation (PV&V) Engineer for John Deere. In high school, she completed Introduction to Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering, Civil Engineering and Architecture, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, and Engineering Design and Development in the PLTW Engineering program.

In what grades did you participate in PLTW? What were some of your most memorable experiences from PLTW?

I started taking PLTW classes my freshman year of high school and continued to take classes until graduating. I remember being impressed by the 3D printer we had in our classroom, as well as the 3D scanner (this was back in 2010, so these technologies were less common then).

I really enjoyed being hands-on with all the projects in these classes. Some highlights were doing field surveying outside on our practice field in Civil Engineering and Architecture, and designing and building a puzzle cube in Introduction to Engineering Design. The most memorable experience was the capstone project in Engineering Design and Development. My team developed a brake system to prevent hay racks from rolling when they are parked, and there are still parts installed on my parents’ hay rack from that prototype.

What did your journey look like to get to where you are today?

After graduating high school, I attended Iowa State University. I started out in Agricultural Engineering since I liked both agriculture and engineering. After the first year, I switched over to Mechanical Engineering because I didn‘t want to work on heavy machinery and wanted more career options, which is ironic, since I now work on heavy machinery at John Deere.

In my junior year, I took a semester off from studies to intern with Whirlpool Corporation at a refrigerator manufacturing facility in Amana, Iowa. This was a great experience and it was worth it to take a semester off to gain real-world experience. I learned that supplier quality engineering was not for me and that manufacturing engineering is fairly hands-on.

The summer before I graduated, I took a human-centered design course, which was a study abroad course that took place in Nicaragua. We partnered with a local non-governmental organization (NGO) to design technologies that could improve daily life for Nicaraguans. My group worked with the local farmers to understand their needs, then went to work designing, building, and testing a biochar reactor – a device that produces a soil amendment that farmers can use to improve their yields. It was great to be so hands-on with a project that had potential to make a real meaningful impact. There was a ton of work to do in just four short weeks, and the limitations and constraints of engineering in a developing country provided a unique and fun challenge. This was my absolute favorite college experience.

I graduated from Iowa State University with my degree in Mechanical Engineering in December 2014. I didn’t have a job and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but, fortunately, that only lasted a month. I was hired as a contractor to work at John Deere in Dubuque as a Structural Test Engineer. This was a fun and hands-on job where I got to operate the construction machines like a customer would and try to break things – There's more analysis and technical work involved with it, too. After a couple of years, I was hired directly on with John Deere and continued working in structural testing for about four more years. I celebrated my five-year anniversary at John Deere in October 2021. Last year, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in engineering management, so I am also taking classes online through the University of Wisconsin - Madison. I expect to graduate in May 2022.

What is your current role within your company?

My current role is Operator Station PV&V Engineer for John Deere’s Construction and Forestry Division. PV&V stands for Product Verification and Validation, which means I'm a test engineer. I work to validate the designs for all the operator stations for John Deere’s construction equipment, which involves testing components such as seats and joysticks. I’m also the PV&V Team Lead for 4-Wheel Drive Loaders. This role involves more program management, as I help to lead all the functional test areas (structures, engines, hydraulics, etc.) in planning and scheduling for new loader programs.

What did you learn in PLTW that still helps you today?

I really enjoyed learning through projects. PLTW classes are so different than any other classes because it isn’t about daily math homework or weekly writing assignments; the focus is on big-picture projects that you work on throughout the semester. The planning and pace of those projects is similar to how I tackle projects daily at work.

Do you have any advice for current PLTW students?

Take advantage of opportunities that come your way and don’t be afraid to try new things. Some people seem to be intimidated by engineering, and they shouldn’t be. There will always be challenges but if you dig into them, you might surprise yourself with what you can do. Even if you fail, you will learn a lot and what’s important is how you respond to that failure. Employers like to hear about how you overcame a failure just as much as they want to hear about your successes, so don’t be afraid to fail.

Anything else you’d like to add?

PLTW was great for exploring engineering as a career before committing to a degree program and paying college tuition. I realized how much I enjoyed engineering and had a good understanding of the effort it would take before going to college, so I felt better prepared.