Published: May 4, 2021

Check out how our faculty members are leveraging computing in innovative research projects across engineering disciplines.

College announces three new interdisciplinary research themes

The College of Engineering and Applied Science recently launched three interdisciplinary research themes as part of a broad push into growing and critical areas of study. The new themes — Hypersonic Vehicles; Resilient Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity; and Engineering Education and AI-Augmented Learning — will explore vitally important work and help advance the college’s long-term research vision.

Hypersonic vehicles are used for space exploration, national security and perhaps for passenger transport in the future. The design of these flying vehicles involves consideration of a number of complex, closely interrelated areas, including aerodynamics, propulsion, materials, structures, controls and optimization. 

The Resilient Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity group will explore holistic actions to address the many drivers of urban disaster risk worldwide while simultaneously addressing environmental sustainability and social equity challenges. 

The scope of the Engineering Education and AI-Augmented Learning theme includes research in engineering and computing education and assessment, as well as AI/machine learning and the convergence between those areas. One key goal is to develop the theories, technologies and know-how for advancing student-centered learning environments in K–16, graduate, and professional engineering and computing education.

The college launched its first six interdisciplinary research themes in 2018. The goal of the IRTs is to aid faculty teaming on larger projects, build up shared facility resources and provide internal seed grants to propel research in crucial topic areas. From that original group, the Autonomous Systems and Multi-Functional Materials themes will continue for the next two years.

Three interdisciplinary research themes
Three new themes: Hypersonic Vehicles; Resilient Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity; and Engineering Education and AI-Augmented Learning

A smarter power grid starts with education

Kyri baker speaking to two peopleKyri Baker
Department of Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering and Department of Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering 

Buildings and the power grids they are connected to are traditionally designed and operated separately. The topics are usually taught separately, too, with architectural engineers learning to design every aspect of a building, and power systems engineers learning to operate grids effectively. But in modern practice, the line between the two areas is increasingly blurred, thanks to new green power sources, smart home devices and the energy purchasing options available to end-users. Assistant Professor Kyri Baker and her team are studying this shift in a variety of ways, and she recently began teaching a course in grid-connected systems — one of the first of its kind in the world. The course integrates current events, coding skills and group learning activities. Students explore the city of Boulder’s move toward a municipal electric utility and learn to use Python to simulate cost-effective electric vehicle charging under different electricity pricing frameworks. To pursue a clean energy future, she said, grid engineers and building engineers need to collaborate more and develop a better understanding of how one system can help and interact with the other.

Designing computer architecture for security

Tamara Lehman
Department of Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering 

Computer architecture is a discipline that studies how to best assemble, link and organize interconnecting hardware components to create computers that meet our needs. But the emergence of cloud computing and the Internet of Things has made modern computer architectures inadequate to address users’ security and privacy concerns. That’s because those applications require users to relinquish physical control of their systems, making them vulnerable to attacks that software alone cannot protect against. Sharing hardware resources in the cloud also makes systems vulnerable to attacks that exploit the hardware state. Assistant Professor Tamara Lehman and her team are studying this issue in a variety of ways, working to
secure your computer from the hardware up by designing computer architectures with security and performance as priorities. This includes securing memory where delays, space and energy use have caused problems in the past and adding security discovery to verification tools so hardware vulnerabilities are found before it is too late. Lehman’s industrial engineering background gives a new perspective on ways to improve systems, and she said she enjoys working in the security space because it is one of the most challenging problems facing the industry. 

Lehman's zoom group
Clockwise from top left: Tamara Lehman, Sylvia Llosa, Jinpeng Miao, Zack Mckevitt, Rhett Hanscom and Ange-Thierry Ishimwe

Weaving together humans and computers

Laura DevendorfLaura Devendorf
ATLAS Institute and Department of Information Science

Assistant Professor Laura Devendorf is designing smart textiles to better understand how technology shapes our relationships with people and the world. In her latest research, funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, she is bringing together weavers and engineers to invent new tools and programs for integrating smart and functional materials at the yarn level. When textiles like clothing, blankets and upholstery are made with materials that are conductive, can sense and move, or are responsive to the environment, an ordinary object can become a display surface, power generation system or sensor network. One of Devendorf’s designs is a poncho called the Exoskeleton for Sedimentation that measures applied forces with 13 embedded force sensors. When she holds her child or leans against a chair, the force applied to her body is recorded as an image. “You might think about the different ways we form one another,” she said. “It helps us remember the many ways that we are connected to other people and things.” Devendorf said her research will also lead to programs for broadening participation in STEM through integration of research with university teaching, artist residencies and multigenerational design workshops. 

The Internet of Living Things

Gregory Whiting
Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering
Robert McLeod
Department of Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering

Across vast areas of land and crops, hundreds of sensors reporting crop data such as nutrient or water intake are becoming what researchers refer to as the Internet of Living Things. The sensors create a network that can help growers make better decisions about what crops need to flourish. Associate Professor Gregory Whiting and other researchers are using 3D printing to make electronic sensors small enough to embed in a plant, cheap enough to produce and replace, and suitable for use in a variety of outdoor conditions. “If you build sensors in the conventional way, you would potentially have thousands of devices spread out over a field that would likely be very expensive, require significant maintenance and would create a lot of electronic waste,” Whiting said. 

Whiting said it would not have been possible to get to this point without the work in Professor Robert McLeod’s lab, where researchers developed organic electronics that could be used for sensing in human tissue. As they move the technology forward, they hope this could one day help solve global problems of food and water shortages, as well as energy use.

Whiting and Mcleod
Gregory Whiting (left) and Robert McLeod

Simulating fire dynamics and real-world events

Peter HamlingtonPeter Hamlington
Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering 

When a problem is too expensive, time-consuming, difficult or dangerous to examine in the real world, computers and numerical simulations become the ticket to a better understanding. Associate Professor Peter Hamlington uses computers to study fire dynamics, combustion, industrial systems, the ocean, turbulent flows and wind energy. His research group writes and uses open-source software to reproduce real-world events as accurately as possible. “Many of our simulations are performed on supercomputers using thousands of processors,” Hamlington said. “Once the simulations are complete, we spend a substantial amount of time analyzing the resulting datasets, often tens or hundreds of terabytes in size.” The group uses fire simulations to predict where a fire will go, both in buildings and natural environments. By taking a closer look at how fuel type, fuel geometry, terrain and atmospheric conditions affect fire behavior, the group can determine more effective mitigation efforts, such as optimal placement of fire sprinklers in a building. Beyond fire dynamics, Hamlington’s group simulates destructive detonations in high-speed propulsion systems, ocean carbon cycles for improved long-term forecasts of the global carbon cycle and climate, and turbine placement in a wind farm to increase power output, reduce undesirable loads and increase turbine lifetime.