Ka-booom! Kersplash! Vrrrooom!
Ask most engineers what drew them to the discipline, and crunching
equations in the classroom probably doesn’t top any list.
Studying explosions, building things, saving the planet—that’s
more like it. Now, more than a decade after a National Science Foundation
report on engineering education stressed the need for more hands-on
learning, the lesson is beginning to take. A growing number of programs
now give undergraduates a crack at cutting-edge research—often
on socially relevant projects. Want to save lives when tsunamis
strike? How about landing a robot on Mars or designing bomb-proof
embassies? As these three labs demonstrate, the fundamentals can
still be fun.
Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center,
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
Building car bombs and examining scorched sedans. Shooting supermarket
chickens at helicopter windshields to calculate winged hazards.
“Field work” takes on a whole new meaning at New Mexico
Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC),
the nation’s leading lab for studying explosives—from
tiny air-bag charges to 50,000-pound blasts.
on 40 rugged square miles of desert near Socorro, the research complex
includes a mountain with enough deep canyons to permit simultaneous
“shots” at its 30 test sites. On any given day, researchers
and students might be investigating the energy released by nontraditional
explosives, programming robots to detect and defuse land mines,
taking high-speed photographs of explosions or evaluating the vulnerability
of embassies to blasts. “We get outside a lot,” says
former EMRTC director Van D. Romero, New Mexico Tech’s vice
president for research and economic development.
Indeed, business has been, well, booming in the post-9/11 era.
Since its founding in 1946, the EMRTC has grown from a small discipline
within the physics department to a mechanical-engineering powerhouse—with
more undergraduate and graduate students than any other department.
Today, the center performs some 200 to 300 field tests each year,
mainly for federal agencies like the Pentagon and Homeland Security,
but also for universities and industry.
Undergraduates have always played a key, if unglamorous, role in
this research. For freshmen, the work often consists of laying cables,
digging ditches, building structures and other “manual labor”
for setting up tests, notes Romero. Upperclassmen get into instrumentation
and analyzing data, as well as taking ultra-high-speed photos and
creating computer simulations. “We don’t have students
running around and blowing things up,” cautions Romero, noting
that only fully trained, certified technicians can arm and detonate
explosives. “Safety is first and foremost.”
While students and researchers “have a blast” trying
to understand explosives and their effect on materials from plane
windows and Army tanks to bank vaults, “the explosion is secondary,”
says Romero. “We just do the science, math and engineering.”
That’s a crucial distinction. “We do the fun stuff,
but we also do the fundamentals,” explains Romero. Blowing
stuff up “is a way of getting students interested in science
and engineering and in learning the fundamentals so they will have
the ability to understand and solve problems,” he says. “If
they don’t know the calculus, they’re not going to be
much help to anyone.”
The program clearly instills more than the basics, given the Sandia
and Los Alamos national labs’ demand for graduates. Career
opportunities exist beyond the homeland-security bunker, too. As
Romero notes, “there are 4 billion pounds of explosives used
in the United States every year—legally,” in mining
and other industries. Yet the majority of EMRTC undergrads become
so enthralled with research that they aim straight for graduate
school and end up in academia, igniting the next generation of young
Simulated Natural Disaster
Tsunami Wave Basin, O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory,
Oregon State University College of Engineering
The slight bulge of water rolling toward Seaside, Ore., hardly
looked menacing. But its destructive power became viscerally clear
to the students and researchers who built this scale-model simulation
when a towering tsunami slammed into the beachfront promenade. “I’ve
never had a project that people reacted to like this one,”
says Daniel Cox, associate professor of civil and construction engineering
and director of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon
State University’s College of Engineering in Corvallis. “They
really can identify with it.”
the effect of natural disasters on coastal resorts is just a sample
of the riveting—and socially relevant—research beginning
to flow from the Tsunami Wave Basin, the world’s largest,
most sophisticated facility for studying earthquake-generated monster
swells. How fast does water rush through streets? What about debris?
Could a vertical evacuation shelter work? From sediment scouring
to the impact of global warming on shorelines, the scenarios that
researchers can model and measure in the 160-foot-long tank are
as vast as the sea itself.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley seemed an unlikely home for tsunami
research when the $6.4 million facility—one of 15 that make
up the NSF’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation—opened
four years ago. Then the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck,
followed by Hurricane Katrina a year later. Those disasters heightened
concern about the Pacific Northwest’s own vulnerability to
offshore faults and thrust Oregon State into the forefront of wave
behavior and hazard-mitigation research. The center, which hosts
up to five undergraduate research fellows each summer, also has
become a major campus attraction, welcoming thousands of visitors
Tsunamis may seem more the province of oceanographers than of civil
engineers, but lab director Cox sees a natural fit. “What
happens when waves hit is something we care about,” he explains.
“If we know this building will stand, people can take shelter
there rather than running through the street.”
Gauging a 35-foot tsunami’s impact on six blocks of real,
if miniature, Seaside streets “makes it very exciting for
students,” Cox adds. “It lets them put a tsunami shelter
they designed out there and see what happens.” He believes
such real-world projects may attract more women to civil engineering
and graduate school because they involve more than “just a
Sophomore Brittany Snyder, who wound up working on the Seaside
project last summer, is a convert. After a few “terrifying”
weeks of insecurity spent hooking up equipment and teaching herself
fluid dynamics, the civil engineering major gained confidence—and
camaraderie. “I learned a ton, more than in my normal lecture
classes,” says Snyder, whose experience running equations
put her “one step ahead of everyone else” in physics
class this past fall. Walking evacuation routes in a resort where
she once vacationed convinced Snyder to abandon materials for structural
and environmental engineering. “It really made it exciting,
doing research that really matters,” she explains. “It
was so relevant to my life, to all Oregonians.”
The tsunami basin plans a third Seaside simulation, with wireless
sensors to monitor the impact of debris on infrastructure. Meanwhile,
a $1 million NSF grant to install a wavemaker in a neighboring channel
will expand post-Katrina research to hurricane waves. That system,
which is a one-of-a-kind design, should be ready in late 2008—just
in time for hurricane season.
Underwater with Robots
Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility, A. James Clark
School of Engineering, University of Maryland
Limbs float weightlessly. Nothing rises or falls. Plunging into
the giant swimming pool known as the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility
(NBRF) at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School
of Engineering, says its director, David Akin, “is the closest
you can get to being an astronaut without having to live in Houston.”
on a leafy stretch of campus at the Space Systems Laboratory, the
facility is one of just three neutral buoyancy tanks in America
and the only one on a college campus. (NASA operates the others.)
Some 50 feet wide and 25 feet deep, its pool can hold robots, equipment
and people, providing a low-cost “weightless” environment
for making space exploration safer and easier.
How NBRF landed in College Park is a space odyssey in itself. The
saga begins in 1976, when Akin and his Massachusetts Institute of
Technology colleagues founded the Space Systems Laboratory. Every
Saturday evening, the researchers would wheel their robots across
campus to the swimming pool, run tests overnight and clear out in
time for Sunday’s swimmers—which, Akin says, “really
sucked.” In 1990, Akin convinced NASA to fund a dedicated
neutral buoyancy tank, but MIT had no room to build it. Maryland
did, so Akin moved.
Since it opened in 1992, the NBRF has launched a host of important
initiatives, from Ranger series robots that repair the Hubble telescope
to space suits designed to study how the human body works in space.
Current projects include deep-sea and medical rehabilitation robots.
Undergraduates are as actively involved in this research as Ph.D.s.
“We couldn’t do the kind of work we do without undergraduates”
helping to design, build and maintain equipment, says Akin. “It
would be way too expensive.” And their ideas are equally welcome.
After a doctoral student left this summer for the International
Space University, for instance, two rising seniors took over a complex
space-suit design project and “did a great job.”
Such hands-on projects are “a critical portion of engineering
education,” says Akin, who learned to “see it, do it,
believe it” as an MIT undergrad. Were there sufficient resources,
he would “give every one of our students” the opportunity
to develop a system from beginning to end.
Akin also has “always had a strong philosophy of involving
students at all levels.” A good year might bring 20 undergraduates
to his lab. All told, some 500 undergraduates have worked there
during his 17-year tenure at Maryland.
Whether the abundance of hands-on projects explains the program’s
high percentage of females, who account for 1 in 3 students, is
unclear. As Akin observes, “it’s just kind of fun to
jump in the water with your robot and watch it work.”
Many discover the sky’s the limit. Akin’s NBRF students
have worked on the Mars Rover, built a flying robot camera, and
won a recent NASA design contest for a work station with spacesuit
appendages. And while the lab certainly attracts its share of rocket
scientists, Akin prefers the strugglers. When they plunge into the
tank with their creations, all those calculations and computer simulations
suddenly click. Students realize “this is why I’m studying,
this is how it works in the real world,” says Akin. “They
really blossom. They just take off.”
Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.