Inspired by Design

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Mechanical engineering seniors, from left to right, Faith Batrack, Eli Kuhlmann, Charlie Wheeler, Adam Lokar, and Coulter Polhman visit the National Wind Technology Center south of Boulder to discuss their test apparatus with NREL representatives
Faith and Adam are shown machining parts in the Durning Laboratory in mechanical engineering.
Faith measures the thickness of a piece of steel she intends to cut.

At Design Center Colorado, you can hear ideas percolate. On any given day, dozens of engineering students gather in the Durning Student Projects Lab, testing, straining, conferring, explaining—and machining parts for products never built before.

Design Center Colorado is the new name for the mechanical engineering department’s industry-education partnership, which immerses teams of undergraduate and graduate students in yearlong design projects sponsored by industry.

This year, 119 seniors are working on 24 projects in the center’s senior design course sequence, including a jettisonable star-tracker cover for Lockheed Martin’s Orion Crew Module and new test equipment to help solve a problem in wind turbine technology for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The center also has launched a new graduate design program, enrolling 40 master’s students working on even more advanced projects.

Design Center programs put a focus on concept generation, user-centered design, and hands-on engineering, which faculty say is unique to CU-Boulder. The innovative approach is attracting students and industry sponsors in unprecedented numbers, and student involvement is expected to grow from 159 to over 300 within two years.

“The design program is based on a lot of what’s fun in engineering—identifying a need and developing a solution for that need,” says graduate student Morgan Hill.

The center’s tagline “Design. Build. Play.” reflects the fact that students love what they do.

“Students see mechanical engineering as a flexible career choice that is applicable to a variety of fields,” says Daria Kotys-Schwartz, who directs the undergraduate design program. “And they want to
design things—they are willing to put in a lot of hours in their design courses because it really taps into why they’re here and why they want to be an engineer.”

Senior Design

The two-semester senior design course provides the culminating undergraduate experience offered by the department. Students integrate what they have learned in their fundamental mechanical engineering courses, and gain valuable real-world experience through regular interaction with fabricators, suppliers, and engaged industry sponsors.

“I came to CU because I want to get into renewable energy,” says student Eli Kuhlmann, whose team is developing a test apparatus for the determination of wind-turbine rolling element bearing stiffness. NREL is sponsoring the project to try to address the cause of premature gearbox failures, and ANCO, a local company that specializes in vibration testing, is providing a project mentor to work with the students.

Kuhlman says his team came up with an “ingenious” solution to the challenge, and he hopes the experience will help to win him a job in the renewable energy field.

Graduate Design

While undergraduate projects tend to result in “one-off” test products or pieces of equipment, the graduate design program leans toward consumer products and devices that are more technically complex, says Mark Rentschler, graduate design program director.

Hill, for example, is working with a small team to further develop an advanced laparoscopic device manufactured by the biomedical company Covidien.

“The project has a lot more constraints, and the margin for success is a lot narrower,” compared with senior design projects, she says.

Sponsor Benefits

Industry sponsors pay a fee to the Design Center to take on their project and also provide a mentor and materials budget to their student team. In return, the sponsor gains exposure to students’ new ideas and acquires intellectual property and a functional product at the end of the year.

The opportunity has attracted a wide variety of companies in the biomedical, aerospace, energy, computer, recreation, and other industries. Feedback has been extremely positive, and some company representatives have noted that the enthusiasm of the student teams is contagious.

The CU Difference

In addition to Kotys-Schwartz and Rentschler, the design faculty includes Jack Zable, who founded the center in 2000 as the Industry/University Cooperative Projects Center, and Derek Reamon, who co-directs the college’s Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory. Greg Potts also plays an integral role as lab coordinator, supporting student teams through each stage of design, fabrication, and assembly.

All bring industry experience to the program, which enriches their teaching and helps ensure the projects students work on are relevant— something few engineering programs in the country are doing.

“We have meaningful relationships with industry and we do real-world projects that matter,” Rentschler says.

Students from the senior and graduate-level design classes will showcase their projects at a public expo on April 26. See for more information.

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