Skip to main content
Adrienne and Edward Cole
February 27, 2023

Spotlight on Badger Alumni: Mechanical Engineer Edward Cole

Written By: Caitlin Scott



At the close of Black History Month 2023, we’re spotlighting the story of a Badger family that began right here in Madison. Edward Cole (MSME’09; PhDME’13) completed his Mechanical Engineering graduate studies under the guidance of Prof. Frank Pfefferkorn and Adrienne Cole (BS’09) double majored in English and History in the College of Letters and Sciences.

The Cole Badgers now live near Detroit with their two young children and reconnected with the ME department during a team visit to Dearborn, MI in June of 2022. Our department will be heading back that way May 10-12, 2023 and look forward to meeting ME Badgers in the Detroit area. Stay tuned for more information!

Tell us about your time on campus! What degree(s) do each of you have?

Edward: I first visited campus in the fall of 2006 while attending the Opportunities in Engineering Conference with the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS) and had a second visit in spring 2007 with the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Adrienne and Edward Cole
Edward and Adrienne Cole

I entered UW-Madison in fall of 2007, after completing my bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering at Tennessee State University. My mother and brother helped me move into my apartment on a Thursday while my father stayed home in Nashville. On that Friday afternoon, we met Prof. Frank Pfefferkorn and his research assistants at the Memorial Union for countless plastic pitchers of beer. My brother and I connected well with Frank and the grad students. Over the subsequent years, I presented my friction stir welding research at domestic and international conferences, with work supporting construction of the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship. I earned a Masters (2009) and PhD (2013) under Frank’s guidance.

Adrienne: I enrolled in UW-Madison as a freshman in the fall of 2005 and lived in Elizabeth Waters Hall for three years – including its last year as an all-female residential hall. I loved being on campus and walking around. I rarely took the bus – unless the weather was really, really bad! I double majored in History and English and I was able to develop skills to think and write about the world around me in a more critical way. An ability that I have carried with me since completing my undergraduate education.

Edward Cole
Edward at Mickie’s Dairy Bar

During my time on campus I was involved in Badger Cru and The Impact Movement. I also had the opportunity to be a New Student Leader and work as a Summer Orientation (SOAR) Guide during the summer of 2008. This was an awesome experience because I got to meet other students I probably would not have met otherwise and work closely with them that summer. I also learned all the cool facts about campus that make you proud to be a Badger! At some point I started working in the Engineering Hall Mail Room. I sorted mail and delivered packages all around the building. 

How did the two of you meet?

Edward: Adrienne and I first met at church, which was quickly followed by a lunch date at Qdoba on State Street. Apparently, I was an hour late. Adrienne reminds me all the time. We saw each other nearly every day after I found out she worked in the mail room at Engineering Hall. 

What can you share with us about your career path(s)?

Edward: I joined Schlumberger as mechanical engineer in Texas from 2013 to 2015. I joined Sapa (now Hydro Extrusion USA) as a research engineer in Michigan in 2016 with focus on friction stir welding. Since 2016, I have elevated to Director of Innovation & Technology for North America with Norsk Hydro, including a 2-year expat journey in Sweden.

Adrienne and Edward Cole

Adrienne joined City Year Chicago after graduation, a 2-year service that placed her in schools on the Southside of Chicago. Adrienne supported teachers and students with both in-class and after school tutoring. The Southside experience awakened a desire to teach in underserved areas, a realization that landed Adrienne at the University of Chicago pursuing a Master’s degree within the Urban Teaching Education Program. After completing her degree in 2013, Adrienne moved to Houston to continue her teaching career with 3rd grade English and Reading. Today, Adrienne teaches 3rd grade English and Reading within the Detroit Public Schools Community District. 

What can you share with us about your experiences as a Black man on the UW-Madison campus?

Edward: In 2007, I was the only black male graduate student in mechanical engineering. I remember when Frank asked if I preferred Black or African American. I don’t recall my response. I got used to standing out because there weren’t very many black men or women undergraduates in engineering. GERS changed that picture for me. We met frequently for meals and recreation, all aimed at supporting our educational journey. 

Adrienne and Edward Cole

I remember having to earn the respect of certain staff in the student machine shop in the basement of the ECB. One day I borrowed a tool from the shop and one of the staff members said, “just don’t steal it.” I told Frank about this. I earned licenses on the shop equipment and never had a problem again. I’m not sure if Frank had an influence on that outcome. 

Standing 6’ 1” with an athletic build, I looked like I wore a jersey. Walking on engineering campus, I’m sure many thought I was heading to/from practice. One night, just after UW Police (or Madison PD) began sending text message warnings to students, there was a communication about a black male suspect that could have easily resembled myself, or a handful of my graduate school friends. A white female friend later told me how she feared the idea of me getting mistaken for the actual suspect. 

I was intentional about dedicating time to underrepresented students. For several summers, I taught ProCSI courses and hosted WiscAMP and EXPO students in our lab. It was important that they saw me thriving in pursuit of my PhD. This visibility was even more important when in Fall of 2008 or 2009, I learned that there were ~153 black students in the freshman class, and half were athletes. I also made special effort to connect with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter, offering a peek into graduate school life and opportunities. 

Adrienne and Edward Cole

Balance has always been important to me. As a graduate student my balance came from a new family of black and brown students seeking advanced degrees at a highly ranked PWI (predominantly white institution). Family members came and went every year. We were a support group, encouraging each other to press on, excel and be the best. The group deserves credit for dozens of PhDs, JDs, MDs and Masters degrees during my tenure at UW-Madison. On the living room floor of my apartment, we laid the foundation of what would become the Black Graduate Student & Professional Organization (BGPSA).

On the weekend that I moved to Madison, my mother established her own relationship with Frank and Nancy and trusted them to watch over me. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, I shared an open letter with work friends and colleagues and it opened a new dialogue with Frank, Nancy, and me.

I still communicate with Frank and Nancy and our paths still cross at academic/industrial conferences. We last saw Frank at a welding symposium in Chicoutimi (Saguenay, Quebec) in 2018. Since then, I had a failed surprise visit to Frank’s home in 2021. He and Nancy were out of the country. We don’t ignore each other’s calls; we look forward to them. I could probably drop my kids off over the weekend and they would be happy to babysit! Our relationship began as Professor-Graduate student. Today, we are family. My mother still jumbles “Pfefferkorn” when she asks about Frank and Nancy. 

Please discuss how UW shaped what you may be instilling in your growing family.

Edward: The Wisconsin Idea describes an education that influences people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom, impacting the local community, state, nation, and the world. Our collective years at Madison took us to Ghana, Austria, Germany, and Lebanon. We immersed in the global experiences, expanding our cultural competency in ways that can only be achieved by setting foot on foreign land. We also volunteered with local organizations to tutor and mentor Madison youth through relationships developed at Fountain of Life Church.

The UW-Madison 2023 Black History Month theme, Black Arts: Multiple Mediums, One Story, advocates for celebrating the art that Black people have created throughout the years. Learn more about the month’s events here.