$1.5 million alum gift helps ME department better prepare students for dynamic industry
If you ask Mechanical Engineering Professor and Chair Roxann Engelstad how engineering in the 21st century has evolved, her answer is one of both challenge and opportunity. “It moves so fast, it is hard to keep up,” says Engelstad, who holds the Stephen P. Timoshenko and the Bernard A. and Frances M. Weideman professorships. “It’s well-integrated, very global, and completely interdisciplinary.” And, she says, it’s a challenge her department, like others nationwide, must embrace.
In response to increased global competition and convergence of disciplines, the National Academy of Engineering in 2004 called for a new model for engineering education. The NAE “Engineer of 2020” will be the product of a design-heavy curriculum, with an ability to solve multidisciplinary problems on multidisciplinary teams. Rather than focusing on single aspects of a problem, this new engineer will be a systems engineer, with the ability to take into account policy and social practice as well as foundational science.
And as traditional engineering departments look for ways to adapt their curricula to produce these engineers, the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UW-Madison is benefiting from a $1.5 million gift from 1958 mechanical engineering alumnus Robert Cervenka and his wife, Debbie. The gift is funding crucial new equipment purchases for undergraduate teaching labs.
Bob co-founded Phillips Plastics in 1964 and served as its chief executive officer and chairman, while Debbie worked as executive vice president and member of the board of directors until the couple sold the company in 2010. After, the Cervenkas toured the Department of Mechanical Engineering, seeking a way to give back. They settled on updating manufacturing, measuring and other lab equipment, which Debbie says goes to the heart of what mechanical engineering is, and what the department actually needed. “We both feel very connected to what it takes to run a successful company, technologically,” she says. “Madison is one of the foremost schools of engineering in the country, and they’re doing unbelievably good work on basically a shoestring.”
Engelstad and the Cervenkas saw the gift as an even bigger opportunity to add value to students who graduate from the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering. After intensive student and faculty consultation, Engelstad put the gift to work enhancing the department’s already strong hands-on curriculum, and to speed its entry into the new era of engineering. “Already it’s impacted a tremendous number of our programs, faculty and students,” Engelstad says.
New hands-on opportunities
In addition to updating labs with faster, smarter or more precise tools that, for example, might enable students to take measurements more quickly, or to gather more data about a manufactured part, the Cervenka gift has helped the department add new dimensions to existing courses.
In Engineering Measurements and Instrumentation (ME 368), Associate Professors Gregory Nellis and Scott Sanders purchased portable MyDAQ data-acquisition hardware to allow students to participate in the lecture component of the class from their laptops. Now, they can write data acquisition routines they’ll use in lab to measure their experimental data, whereas before, the students could only watch an instructor perform the steps. Nellis says the extra experience enables the students to tackle more advanced lab problems and more quickly learn fundamental skills. They also leave the class proficient in LabView, an industry-standard data acquisition program. “I think they learn a lot more,” he says.
In another course, Dynamic Systems (ME 340), the department restored an inactive lab section. Previously, Professor Neil Duffie had only the resources to teach a couple dozen students. Now, new vibration and control experiments, plus teaching assistants to run the labs, are enabling 140 students per semester to experience the dynamics of thermal, mechanical, mechatronic and fluid systems. “We can show them—hands-on—that the modeling and mathematical techniques they’re learning really do describe something about what’s going on in the real world,” Duffie says.
One of the most exciting single purchases the Cervenka gift has funded is a selective laser sintering machine, a manufacturing-grade 3-D printer that, like medical and hobby-grade printers, can create complex parts and structures out of polymers or metals. The rise of rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing to the mainstream is a big opportunity for well-prepared students, says Tim Osswald, Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s not yet an acceptable high-volume production technique, but it’s going to be, and our students are a step ahead by getting used to it and comfortable with it now,” Osswald says. “Eventually it will be completely integrated into the curriculum.”
As the former executive of a company that hired many UW-Madison students, Debbie stresses the value of learning new technologies while still in college. Hands-on training on the most up-to-date equipment will make students more marketable as they enter manufacturing jobs, she says. “Students from Wisconsin have always had an impact, but now they can have more of an impact sooner,” she says.
Teaching new skills
The Cervenka gift also has enabled the department to develop and pilot a new class for sophomores and juniors. Premiering in fall 2012, the new design and prototyping course offers students an earlier opportunity to begin thinking about design. It also familiarizes them with the vast array of prototyping tools available on campus. “Without the Cervenkas’ gift, there would have been no money for a new lab course,” says Associate Professor Frank Pfefferkorn, one of the course’s instructors.
The course augments student opportunities for hands-on experience, bridging the gap between introductory engineering courses for freshmen and senior design courses. Ultimately, the new course will ensure students learn to use the broadest possible range of manufacturing tools early in their under-graduate careers, and get a head start on prototyping, a fundamental skill for future mechanical engineers.
In the experience-heavy lab course, students start prototyping with lightweight foam models and progress through wood shop, sheet metal, computer numerical control machining, rapid prototyping, and designing and constructing their own Stirling engine. More than building prototypes, however, students learn to take the necessary pragmatic approach to materials selection and tolerance specifications. For example, what’s the most cost-effective choice, while still accomplishing the goal? “One thing we emphasize specifically in this course is that you build a prototype for an explicit reason and you identify that reason,” says Pfefferkorn.
In making prototypes, Professor Jay Martin says engineers try to understand what a product looks like at its simplest level and how users interact with it. But they also address more precise questions: Does it move as designed, how much friction do moving parts generate, how much load can it bear?
The new class is part of a bigger shift in the department toward integrated manufacturing—drawing together design and systems engineering into hands-on mechanical training. And as colleges of engineering nationwide beef up their online offerings, Engelstad says the opportunity for hands-on learning increases. “If you listen to where our students are going after they graduate, and if you listen to the needs of employers, it’s quite obvious that they need a hands-on component,” Engelstad says. “That’s why employers come to Wisconsin, and when I talk about adding even more hands-on experiences and developing new labs for courses that had previously only been theory, they become even more excited.”
Likewise, Pfefferkorn says the entire field of manufacturing is changing, adapting more quickly to changes in designs or demands for parts. “Processes are becoming more flexible so plants can quickly alternate between the different parts or designs they need to make,” he says.
And in a quest to instill an innovative spirit in mechanical engineering students, the department is offering more experience in design-oriented thinking. Building on new hands-on opportunities enabled by the Cervenkas’ gift, the department is laying the foundation for an entirely new leg of the formerly three-legged curriculum. Where once mechanical engineering covered only mechanical systems, energy systems, and manufacturing systems, it now includes design, innovation, and systems engineering.
Considering entire systems, says Pfefferkorn, will be an important part of the transformation of mechanical engineering, even as specialty engineering disciplines such as electrical and biomedical continue to advance. “There are no systems built anymore that have only mechanical parts,” Pfefferkorn says. “And everything will be sourced from all over the world. It’s many components—mechanical, electrical and others together—to make one product or outcome.”
Mechanical engineering really is the center of the engineering world, says Duffie. “This idea of having to bring all these technologies together and also being able to manufacture them is a big part of what our job is,” he says. “This is a thing that has evolved since mechanical engineers were very much focused on steam and bridges. Now we have this blizzard of technology we have to deal with.”
Encouraging students to succeed at innovation will require not just new equipment, but also broad experience with processes and methods, and plenty of opportunities to consider real-world challenges, says Pfefferkorn. “Innovation is driven by combining creative thinking, a strong fundamental understanding of engineering principles, and experience to come up with a solution to a human need,” he says.
Engelstad, the Cervenkas, and the faculty hope the department can continue enhancing its curriculum to provide that experience.
Debbie credits much of the success of her and Bob’s company to the value it placed on innovation and adaptation to changing times. Since its inception, Phillips plastics evolved from injection-molding such individual parts as snowmobile grilles to creating entire finished products, such as insulin delivery systems. “We understood innovation and creativity,” she says. “Those are things many students will have within them, but you have to find a way to give the foundation to be able to use their creativity and be able to challenge themselves and challenge others.“
In the works are still more enhancements: Engelstad hopes to create a truly interdisciplinary capstone design class that draws students from such disciplines as art, business and others to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of design itself. The department also is creating a new metrology laboratory, a focal point for state-of-the-art measurement tools. Also proposed is a center for design, innovation and systems engineering. And Engelstad says she wants to create more space on campus specifically for design and prototyping, to allow students to work together on projects.
In the meantime, Englestad is excited about the very tangible benefits throngs of mechanical engineering students are already seeing—among them, the new class, new opportunities to learn by doing, and modernized labs. “A tremendous number of people are benefiting,” she says.
Debbie Cervenka agrees. “It’s a joy to go down and hear what they’re doing and how this is influencing students and the school,” she says. “That’s a joyful gift. And the best gifts you give are the gifts you find joy in.”