Six Purdue researchers win NSF early-career awards in 2015

December 16, 2015  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Five Purdue University faculty members in the College of Engineering and one in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute won 2015 Faculty Early Career Development awards from the National Science Foundation, one of the most prestigious NSF honors for outstanding young researchers.

The NSF issues about 400 Early Career awards annually. Purdue's recipients were Peter Bermel, Jennifer DeBoer, Kendra Erk, Morgan Hynes, Rebecca Kramer and Alejandra J. Magana.

Details about the Purdue research grants:


Recovering Waste Heat

Bermel, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will lead combined theoretical and experimental efforts to recover waste heat as electricity. The work is needed, since in 2013 alone 61 percent of raw energy from sources including coal, natural gas and oil was wasted as heat because of the low efficiency of power conversion. A thermophotovoltaic (TPV) system, which is potentially practical because of its low maintenance and quiet, portable operation, can uniquely capture this waste heat as electricity by using thermal photons, which are individual units of light. However, TPV systems emit the vast majority of thermal photons at low energies, limiting efficiency. To overcome this barrier, Bermel proposes to develop an innovative approach to TPV, called thermo-photonics (TPX). The device may efficiently use standard silicon solar-cell technology, ensuring a relatively easy transfer to commercial development when the concept is proven. Applications may include harvesting waste heat, converting solar power, and creating new light sources.

The NSF award description is available at


Increasing Engineering Diversity

DeBoer, an assistant professor of engineering education, will work to evaluate and improve online courses for engineering undergraduates from diverse backgrounds. The nation is trying to increase the retention and achievement of women, minorities and high-attrition groups in engineering, and online learning has emerged as a popular strategy for expanding access. However, there is limited evidence that online courses work for the diverse groups of students in engineering classes. This proposal pushes research and practice to better serve all of the varieties of engineering students in three ways. First, it analyzes underrepresented or high attrition student groups independently, rather than studying average effects for a whole class. Second, it tracks individual student behaviors to better explain differences in student success and better recommend support systems that are tailored to unique students. And, third, it studies undergraduate online learning in five widely varying contexts, including two international sites, to greatly expand the spectrum of tools that can inform undergraduate engineering in the United States. Enhancing digital educational tools to better support unique groups of students, especially those that have high rates of attrition, could fulfill the nation's growing need for a highly qualified and diverse engineering workforce.

Her NSF award description is available at


High-Performance Concrete  

Erk, an assistant professor of materials engineering, will work to develop new internal curing agents to be used for the creation of high-performance concrete that has increased strength and durability. High-performance concrete is prone to early-age shrinkage and the subsequent formation of cracks within the system, resulting in concrete structures with significantly reduced strength and lifetime. To combat this problem, water-filled internal curing agents are added to the concrete mixture. As the concrete cures, the agents release the stored water and fuel the curing reaction, eliminating the early-age shrinkage and cracking. This award supports fundamental research on the chemical and physical structure of hydrogel-based internal curing agents in order to develop new composite hydrogels (water-based jelly-like materials) that not only release water to promote internal curing but also chemically enhance the curing reaction and refine the resulting concrete microstructure. These new internal curing agents will result in concrete with increased strength and corrosion resistance, allowing for the nation's aging infrastructure to be repaired and replaced with concrete that has greater performance and reduced economic and environmental costs over the increased lifetime of the concrete. This project will also provide engineering students with multidisciplinary education and training.

Her NSF award description is available at


Engineering Perception

Hynes, an assistant professor of engineering education, will investigate how grades 5-8 students' engagement in and perceptions of engineering are influenced through participating in engineering challenges that intentionally integrate their personal interests. The merit of this work lies in the discovery of whether appealing to grades 5-8 students' personal interests can improve their perceptions of engineering and make them more likely to pursue engineering as a career. The project work involves engaging teachers and students in research-based engineering education specifically designed to promote inclusivity among underrepresented groups. The research team will interview and observe students to better understand how their engineering project work relates to their own personal interests. The immediate impact of the proposed project is measured in the numbers of teachers and students (especially those underrepresented in engineering) that have an opportunity to participate in the interest-driven engineering activities. Results from the research are potentially transformative for how engineering activities are presented in pre-college classrooms. More broadly, the project informs the design and delivery of inclusive engineering activities throughout the nation.

His NSF award description is available at


Soft Robotics

Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will investigate an additive manufacturing process using liquid metal. This work has the potential to enable a new class of stretchable electronic devices to serve as platforms for soft robotics, safe human-machine interaction, active orthotics, wearable interfaces, or assistive medical devices for motion aid, prolonged endurance and health monitoring. Stretchable composite materials with electronic functionality will be created by printing liquid-metal traces in elastic polymers. The composite materials are expected to retain the function of rigid metal conductors while leveraging the highly deformable properties of the plastic matrix. The work will focus on the fundamental problems surrounding the processing of liquid metal in order to develop a scalable manufacturing process. The educational and outreach activities include the development of a low-cost, accessible and scalable soft robot designed for middle school and high school students.

Her NSF award description is available at


Modeling Pathways

Magana, an associate professor of computer and information technology, will seek to understand and enhance modeling and simulation practices in undergraduate engineering education. Specifically, the project will identify and validate pathways that students may follow as they progress toward mastery of modeling and simulation skills now needed for workplace engineering readiness. Outcomes will also include factors that contribute to, or prevent, effective teaching and learning with modeling and simulation. An important component for producing successful outcomes in engineering design and innovation is individuals' analytical problem solving abilities. These can be greatly enhanced by means of modeling and simulation processes. Yet, educational strategies for incorporating modeling and simulation skills into undergraduate disciplinary courses have not kept pace with equipping undergraduate engineering students with computational skills needed to solve problems in existing or new application fields. The broader significance and importance of this project is in the way it can increase the chances for engineering discovery and innovation success, helping the nation take advantage of the role of modeling and simulation sooner, better and with greater confidence. The project engages engineering faculty, undergraduate and graduate students in classroom design-based research and also provides outreach and dissemination through professional development of K-12 teachers and instructors at community colleges. The project overlaps with NSF's strategic goals of transforming the frontiers through preparation of an engineering workforce with new capabilities and expertise. Additionally, NSF's goal of innovating for society is enabled by supporting the development of innovative learning theories and systems.

Her NSF award description is available at


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