"We wanted to provide our undergraduates with more open-ended projects earlier in their academic careers," explains Raymond Cipra, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. "We had been assigning routine lab experiments and textbook projects that had predictable outcomes, and that's not an accurate representation of what our students will encounter in the workplace."
Real-world manufacturing issues have long been a feature of engineering design classes, which are usually taken in the latter part of the senior year of study. But Purdue's mechanical engineering faculty is integrating industry-sponsored projects into lower-level courses as well.
"Engineering schools typically have some kind of relationships with industry as part of their senior-level design courses, but our program is committed to making industry-sponsored projects an integral part of the entire curriculum," Cipra says.
A local company, the Dynamic Corp. in nearby Otterbein, Ind ., provided the first formal project for a heat transfer course. The students were asked to design a portion of a braking system for an electric car, with technical guidance and review provided by the company's engineers.
Since 1992, Purdue's mechanical engineering students have worked on design problems generated by more than 25 companies, including the Ford Motor Co., General Electric, General Motors, Michelin Tire Corp., Procter & Gamble, and Lockheed-Martin Missiles and Space.
So far, the industry-sponsored projects have produced the effect faculty members were hoping for: Students are applying the engineering principles they've learned in a real-world context.
"Representatives from the company actually come into the classroom to present the problem and outline the specifications, the students are divided into small teams to do the design work, and at the end of the course they prepare a formal presentation of their results for the company's engineers," Cipra says. "The projects are realistic in that the company has already identified a problem, and students are given some economic and manufacturing parameters in which to work. But there is no set answer to any problem and no restrictions on the solutions they develop."
Industry participants have been pleased with the program as well. Not only do they gain increased visibility with a large pool of people who are potential employees and customers, but they also get some creative approaches to problem-solving.
"The students can really offer a fresh perspective," Cipra explains. "They aren't entrenched in the corporate culture, and they haven't been told that 'it's always been done that way before,' so they frequently come up with a design that the company's engineers haven't considered. And because of the large number of students enrolled in our program, we can put five or six teams on a single project."
Recently, Purdue students in the design for manufacturability course tackled a production issue for Hewlett-Packard. The company wanted to improve a specific process in the manufacture of its ink jet printers, and the class used state-of-the-art video teleconferencing to share results with company officials in Corvallis, Ore .
Hewlett-Packard engineer and Purdue graduate David Kwasny was impressed with the outcome.
"We received thorough evaluations of two existing problematic designs, as well as some very unique and original ideas for modifications," Kwasny says. "We'd like to continue the relationship with Purdue and are discussing a number of ideas for future projects."
The program has grown so quickly that the School of Mechanical Engineering has only recently had time to formalize its structure. Participating companies are expected to provide not only the projects and technical interaction with students, but also any special equipment needed to conduct experiments. The school also asks industry participants for some financial support, with the amount depending on the scope of the project.
"So far there seems to be no shortage of companies interested in working with us," Cipra says. "It's a win-win situation for everyone involved. We can provide truly meaningful educational experiences for our students, and the companies get new ideas for solving problems. It's a partnership with lots of opportunity for growth."
Sources: Raymond Cipra, (765) 494-5724: home, (765) 463-2821; e-mail, email@example.com
David Kwasny, (514) 715-4242; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org Writer: Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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