Purdue Profiles: Chenn Zhou

October 26, 2011

Chenn Zhou, professor of mechanical engineering, director for engineering outreach and director for the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS) at Purdue Calumet, works with students on the world's first virtual blast furnace at CIVS.

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Growing up in a family of educators, Chenn Zhou dreamed of someday fulfilling a similar role. Now, as a professor of mechanical engineering, director for engineering outreach and director for the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS) at Purdue Calumet, she does this on many levels and in many roles.

Her focus as an educator, as a researcher and as an integral part of CIVS is to solve real-world problems. In each of her roles, Zhou does just that through leading, educating and collaborating with students, faculty, staff and members of external organizations and industries.

In particular, projects and research carried out at CIVS have economic and intellectual impacts both locally and globally. From creating virtual tour videos for marketing companies and providing 3-D virtual submarine missions for middle school students to developing virtual roadways to determine the effects of highway traffic on the economy, Zhou believes the integration of simulation with virtual reality visualizations is the future of not only engineering but also multiple other disciplines.

What exactly is the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation?

It is a multidisciplinary, university applied research center with focus on innovation, application and education. Since its inception in spring 2009, which is when I became director, CIVS has opened its doors to more than 41 external organizations and 35 Purdue faculty members from the Calumet and West Lafayette campuses. The work and research done in the center addresses issues and challenges relating to energy, environment, education, training, productivity and quality. The projects completed in CIVS have helped companies save more than $30 million and have provided great experiential learning opportunities for our students. More than 80 Purdue Calumet students have worked on CIVS projects, and more than 1,600 students have participated in 3-D virtual learning at the CIVS lab.

How did you become involved in CIVS?

When I found out Purdue Calumet was beginning to develop a 3-D visualization lab, I decided to explore the possibility of combining my research in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) with virtual reality visualization. Our efforts with this immediately demonstrated great benefits and generated enormous interest from the community. We found that the integration of CFD simulation and virtual reality visualizations is helpful in providing insights and predictive models in the same ways CFD simulations are, but that they are also helpful in communicating the complex data more easily.

To you, what is the most interesting aspect of CIVS?

CIVS allows us to integrate advanced simulation and visualization technologies to create virtual worlds of real problems. This empowers people to communicate more effectively and to achieve better and faster solutions. We were able to create the world's first virtual blast furnace, which has been used to help design, troubleshoot and optimize training in the steel industry and iron- and steel-making processes. CIVS is applicable to so many different disciplines. In the foreign languages, we've created virtual French poetry. In health care, we've worked on brain MRI imaging, rehabilitation visualization and emergency preparation. CIVS has endless capabilities. We recently had a virtual ribbon cutting ceremony for our newly expanded facility.

What is your favorite part of being involved with the center?

My favorite part is working closely with students, faculty, staff and other collaborators to solve real-world problems. The close interactions we have with industry and other organizations create win-win partnerships that provide excellent economic and educational benefits for all involved. It always makes my day when I hear that the results of our projects have been used for real applications or when students have found jobs or been accepted into graduate programs because of their research experiences at CIVS. CIVS gives all of our students, even undergraduates, opportunities to learn through discovery and creative problem solving.

Why is it important and useful for a university to have an environment like CIVS?

CIVS offers 21st century technologies for providing innovative solutions. It makes complex problems accessible to people with all kinds of backgrounds. It opens a door that allows nonexperts the opportunity to expand their knowledge and exercise their creativity. CIVS technologies really have unlimited applications. The CIVS signature areas are virtual design and virtual learning. Virtual design enables enhanced decision making to design, optimize and troubleshoot structures, processes and products. Virtual learning is used to enhance teaching and learning for education and training. These tools can be used in many fields such as construction, engineering, education, training, economic development, energy, environment, health care, marketing, manufacturing, science, service and transportation. The center is available to any individual or organization with a need for our services. We help them identify problems, find the causes and develop solutions based on their needs.

For more information about the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation, visit webs.purduecal.edu/civs/.