Focus on Engineering – Problems engineers solved

For the second year in a row, Professor Ana Barros led a freshman year experience Focus course cluster called Engineering Frontiers. Open to both engineering and arts and sciences students, this year’s cluster examines the planet earth as the life support system that sustains us.

Focus studentsTaught by engineering professor David Needham, one course in the cluster, Engineering 32F is Mapping Engineering onto Biology. Focus students had the opportunity to join into Needham’s ME/BME 265, Introduction to Biologically Inspired Materials and Materials Systems course and do some reverse engineering on their own. Needham’s goal was to introduce the Focus students to a design framework— essentially the systematic process an engineer goes through to solve a problem and design a device, but now mapped on to Biology’s own designs, products and processes.

In the BME 265 class, the Focus freshmen found themselves with older students from all the engineering departments, chemistry and biology. Needham believes that such vertical integration of students at different stages in the learning process works very well. The students worked together on design-based teams to reverse engineering problems nature solved and the problems of disease.

The Focus students took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, Needham said. “They completely embraced the methodology and enjoyed the autonomy of picking their own topic to study, the relatedness that comes with group-learning and a meaningful topic, and the competency embodied in the design methodology approaches.”

One group composed of completely Focus students picked the very original question of how Nature solved the pathogen infection problem from the pathogen’s point of view. Three more teamed up with a Pratt senior to reverse engineer how hormones are produced. One Focus student joined three graduate students to study the flight or fight response, and another Focus student found himself with a group of upperclassmen studying how Nature enabled humans to have such a high degree of balance and specificity in their movement. Yet another worked with three juniors looking at hos Nature solved the hunger and satiation problem. And another worked with two masters students and a junior to tackle how Nature solved the problem of converting sensory inputs so that can be understood and sorted by the brain with.

“The Focus students equipped themselves very well in this very diverse class, and wanted still more,” said Needham. So he gave them the task of reverse engineering a problem— a chance to delve into problems that engineers have already solved and to understand why a solution works and what tradeoffs were made along the way.

Guided by Needham and a sense of which Pratt faculty might enjoy consulting with these freshmen, the students chose topics that interested them representing the three other departments in the Pratt School. They worked in teams of four and consulted faculty experts David Schaad (CEE), Chris Dwyer (ECE) and Josiah Knight (MEMS) as part of their project. At the end of the semester, each team presented their project to the class— and received a spiffy new t-shirt from Needham, that simply said, blazoned across the front, “Problems Engineers Solved”, and details about the class on the back, —all in Duke Blue of course.

Arts and sciences freshmen Stuart Hedgpeth and Chase Olivieri, and engineering freshmen Charles McCall and Jason Hu explored the construction of a retention pond as an aspect of sustainable land development. Civil engineering faculty member David Schaad served as a technical resource to the team.

The retention pond team learned when a pond was appropriate or not, how to size the pond based on storm-water runoff projections, and to factor in values such as safety, aesthetics and system efficiency.

Engineering freshmen Mark Graebner, Richard Veerman, and Eng Seng Ng worked with arts and sciences freshman Stephanie Chang to understand how a hard drive reader works. Electrical and computer engineering faculty member Chris Dwyer served as a team mentor. The team showed how drive read heads have improved through different technology iterations and explained why they were successful— balancing the need to move magnetized parts to “write” information to a hard drive, and to keep those parts stable in order to “read” the information. They also learned that performance was measured by the mean time between hard drive failures—something that seemed counter intuitive to the group at first.

Engineering freshmen Amanda Robison Yishin Chang, Hon Lung Chu and Crystal Diaz de Villegas looked into the engineering of a Prius hybrid car. Mechanical engineer Josiah Knight served as the faculty expert.

In looking at the transportation problem of getting from point A to point B, the hybrid car team identified features such as speed, comfort and choice of power source and ultimately selected energy efficiency as their top priority.

“What’s exciting about the thought process they went through is that the students recognize that the end product— which in this case is a hybrid vehicle— is shaped by the values and priorities they used to bound the project,” said Needham.

Each team had to identify the fundamental equation(s) that described their particular problem, and to explain the equation in layman’s terms. Further, they then showed how the calculations supported the choice of end product solution— whether it was a pond, a hybrid car or a new method of reading/writing a computer hard drive.

“These students haven’t had any engineering training yet and have varied academic backgrounds, but they were able to work through complicated real world concepts, understand and apply quantitative tools and look at a problem from a big picture perspective because they are motivated to learn,” said Needham. “What’s more, they really understand that there are multiple solutions to any problem.”

This Focus cluster is designed to attract students with wide-ranging interests. Arts and sciences students gain insight into the science and technology and engineering students learn to put engineering in a context of complex social issues.

“These Focus students have been amazing,” said Needham. “They are interest in literally anything and everything— so much so that I’ve started calling them “the UNFOCUS students! And, if these 12 first semester freshmen can embrace and enjoy reverse engineering problems engineers solved, then maybe we should consider this as a way of enhancing the freshmen experience”, he added.