Published: Jan. 14, 2020 By

Janet Tsai headshot
Mechanical Engineering Instructor Janet Tsai

CU Boulder’s manufacturing class has been revamped to bring the manufacturing process to life for students with input from industry representatives.

In fall 2019, mechanical engineering instructor Janet Tsai led a group of 15 industry volunteers – members of the department’s ME Partners advisory group – through an interactive brainstorm to reenvision the course. Together, they uncovered a need that would lead to five guest speakers, nine company tours, a manufacturing industry panel and a variety of active learning opportunities over the course of the next semester.

MCEN 4026: Manufacturing Processes and Systems is a course exploring how things are made that all mechanical engineering students take in their junior or senior year. It draws from topics previously introduced in other mechanical engineering courses, making the list of learning objectives quite long. For this reason, Tsai started her discussion by asking those who were gathered to rank the learning objectives in order of importance; there was no consensus

“Instead of pointing to specific learning objectives, industry partners shared that what is most important is to give students a perspective and a sense of the bigger picture,” Tsai said. This led the group to brainstorm ways of bringing the whole manufacturing process to life.

Before leaving the ME Partners meeting, Tsai had a list of volunteers who were interested in hosting company tours, being guest speakers or leading her class through specific manufacturing examples and case studies.

“You can only do so much in a class, but these experiences make education more real,” said Tsai. “We have alumni doing all kinds of manufacturing, so I wanted to make sure the students weren’t just getting my perspective.”

Students visited and engaged with guest speakers from a variety of companies, including Seagate, Avery Brewing, Celestial Seasonings, Coors, Plexus, Boulder County Recycling and others. In the future, Tsai believes virtual tours by way of YouTube or documentaries may also be useful in sharing the bigger picture with students.

"This class has allowed me to see the manufacturing process in a new and enlightening way," said senior Kelsea Keenan. "I could understand the importance of very fine details of the manufacturing process when I participated in the New Belgium tour. Some of the processes we learned about in class were used to their operations." 

Another student, senior Kaushik Kannan said he enjoyed the range of perspectives shared by speakers at the ME Alumni Connect Day panel in his manufacturing class.

"The speakers were very authentic in telling their stories and spoke openly about the challenges they face in their everyday work," Kannan said. "I could see myself in their shoes in a couple years' time as a working engineering professional." 

Manufacturing Brainstorm with Janet Tsai and IndustryTsai said the willingness of those in industry to spend time with students is amazing. Some alumni fly to Boulder from out of state just to help out, companies have opted to spend three times their initial time commitment with students, and one company sent a group of engineers to campus to be consultants for four student projects throughout the semester.

“It was fun to see practicing engineers in the lab offering real-time help to students,” Tsai said.  

In addition to company tours and guest speakers, Tsai led students through a variety of hands-on learning opportunities including a plastics injection molding lab, an aluminum casting lab, an activity where students role-played different types of geometric dimensioning and tolerance callouts and a creative video project. Tsai said her students have learned to do quality work with a fast turnaround and know how to divide and conquer as a team.

"I've never taken a class where the lab is so hands-on and requires the students to think deeper on how objects we use day-to-day are actually made," said Keenan. "Getting hands-on with aluminum casting was something I know many classmates thought was the best part of the lab." 

Kannan said the class helped him understand manufacturing by doing rather than just thinking. 

Tsai and her colleagues are tracking the results of the past semester by completing course assessments and gathering feedback. She said she will know more and expects positive feedback from graduates after they themselves have spent their first six months in industry.

“We want our industry partners to know we’re listening and that students really are interested in what they have to say,” Tsai said. “Even if it’s not direct, being able to tell our students we got input from industry only reinforces the importance of the topics we teach. We appreciate all the support and help that enables us to provide a better, well-rounded education for our students.”

Lead photo: Students engage in a multiday lab where they learn how to cast aluminum.
First photo: Mechanical Engineering Instructor ​Janet Tsai
Second photo: Janet Tsai leads brainstorming with mechanical engineering industry partners in April 2019 to reenvision her manufacturing course.