The challenges of COVID-19 have inspired innovation among staff, faculty and students in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering. Instructors have re-envisioned their courses to allow for hands-on learning despite social distancing, faculty and graduate students are finding safe ways to return to research, and two summer programs, the ME Summer Design Intensive and ME SPUR, have provided valuable engineering experience to 38 participating students. As internships and other professional development opportunities were being canceled, the department was devoting time and energy to programs that could bridge the gap.
ME Summer Design Intensive
“Summer Design Intensive started with an email sent in April with the subject line, ‘crazy idea,’” said Katherine McConnell, senior professional development advisor in the mechanical engineering department. “We wanted to find a way to make the summer valuable for students whose plans were impacted by COVID-19 but hadn’t attempted anything like this before.”
As she and others began to hear of canceled internships, they set off to provide 27 students with experiences similar to what might be gained in an internship. After much brainstorming, they decided to develop a design-based program featuring skill-building workshops and multiple layers of mentorship from department alumni and peer mentors. The concept was developed by McConnell, Idea Forge Mechanical Lab Engineer Shirley Chessman, Instructor Janet Tsai, Senior Instructor Julie Steinbrenner, and student apprentices Daniel Malek, Austin Ross, Dorothea French and Ioana Dumitru.
Design project ideas were collected from faculty and staff, including everything from fluid flow simulations to computational modeling, 3D printing, designing class modules, K-12 outreach activities, and more. Students also had the opportunity to work on self-directed projects, a choose-your-own-adventure option for students wanting an open-ended project with more flexibility, McConnell said.
Jose Martinez Loachamin, a student participant and fourth-year student in the CU-CMU partnership program, and Kathryn Kubacki, a fourth-year student at CU Boulder, worked on a 3D-printed respiratory system in collaboration with the Ferguson Biomechanics and Biomimetics Lab. The system they developed will help train clinicians in the process of intubation, which will also ease the process for patients.
“The biggest takeaway for me was the client interactions that I had through the program,” said Martinez Loachamin. “The mentors were fantastic at helping through the design process, the workshops helped solidify a lot of the knowledge I had acquired from the ME program, and my clients helped me bridge the gap between human anatomy and engineering.”
Kubacki agreed and said she was excited to work with Associate Professor Ginger Ferguson and is looking forward to continuing project development during the school year.
The opportunity to interact with and get support from practicing engineers was a priority in developing the program, said McConnell.
“The mentorship students receive in their first internship is really valuable, and we wanted to do what we could to still provide an opportunity to make those connections,” McConnell said. “It’s been exciting to see how quickly everyone came together to make this happen, and I just love that it’s this huge, community-based effort that’s almost entirely volunteer-powered.”
Because the program was hosted fully online, this meant alumni from across the U.S. and world could also get involved. In total, the program welcomed 40 alumni who volunteered as industry mentors, workshop leaders and project reviewers.
Alumna and board member Diana Manning said she got involved as a mentor because it was important to her that students know there are people in industry who are happy to help them along the way and encourage them during such a big decision point in their lives.
“They’re asking good questions, and that means they’re thinking,” she said. “That takes some courage but is so important when it comes to learning. A learning mindset is key to lifelong success.”
Recent alumna Emily Jordan also got involved and led a Python Workshop Series attended by about a third of the students. Her course took them through the general building blocks of software development, such as conditional statements and for loops, and ended with applications of object-oriented programming.
“During my time at CU, I loved teaching and working as a learning assistant and independent tutor, so the opportunity to lead the Python Workshop Series seemed like a natural next step for me,” Jordan said. “It’s been a new challenge, but I’ve had a lot of fun working with students and helping everyone learn a few things about Python.”
As the five-week program comes to a close at the beginning of August, student project portfolios will be showcased on the mechanical engineering website. Students will also present their work via Zoom conferences to their peers and industry partners.
During campus closures due to COVID-19, Senior Professional Development Advisor Katherine McConnell contacted Director of Active Learning Sharon Anderson, who leads CU Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (CU SPUR) to see if the two could work together to provide an opportunity for students seeking to gain research experience. What they created was ME SPUR, a program similar to but smaller than CU SPUR that enabled students to work with mechanical engineering faculty on research that could be conducted remotely.
"I had just finished 40 CU SPUR project assignments when the research labs shut down,” said Anderson. “Only 10 of the projects could be completed remotely, so partnering with Kat McConnell and the mechanical engineering department was a win-win for everyone involved."
“We have so much amazing research happening in the department,” said McConnell. “Any opportunity to give students a chance to work on that research is something I’m excited about. By partnering with CU SPUR, we were able to provide summer employment for 13 students working on 10 unique and interesting projects.”
One of those students is Paula Pérez who lived in Miami, Florida, with family while researching the impacts of Colorado’s Stay-at-Home and Safer-at-Home Orders on air quality alongside Professor Jana Milford. Pérez said it was her first-choice project because she had been curious to learn more about the causes and impacts of indoor air pollution as they relate to energy consumption, environment and health.
“I’m passionate about using engineering for global development, so this focus gave me a new perspective on related problems,” Pérez said.
“One of the most interesting discoveries for me has been how interconnected different pollutants and activities are, and as a result, how difficult it is to understand direct cause and effect,” said Pérez. “It was peculiar to see that nitrogen dioxide pollution wasn’t very strongly correlated to decreases in traffic even though traffic is understood to be one of its major sources.”
After her work with ME SPUR, she said she is also more confident in her data analytics skills, understands how these skills can be used within a team setting after working with two other students on interrelated data, and has improved her data visualization skills to effectively communicate insights drawn from her research.
“I was really struck by the students’ level of interest in all aspects of the project, from background research on air quality to data gathering to statistical analysis,” said Milford, who worked with Pérez and two other undergraduate students. “They were resourceful in gathering data and stepped up to learn new statistical analysis methods.”
Milford said they didn’t miss a beat even though they were all working remotely on different schedules.
McConnell said the faculty have also been fantastic.
“I think I gave them about a week to provide project descriptions, and we had 10 faculty who sent research ideas in right away and jumped in to help,” she said. “We had students working on everything from biological modeling to air quality, robotics, and magnetic field design projects.”
ME SPUR students will conclude the program by completing a written piece about their work that will be featured on the mechanical engineering website during August and September.
The mechanical engineering department would like to thank CU SPUR, Phillips 66 and the Mechanical Engineering Strategic Advisory Board for their support of the 2020 ME Summer Design Intensive and ME SPUR programs.