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No boundaries, no limits

JMU engineers tackle global, human issues with curiosity and practicality
By Eric Gorton (‘86, ‘09M)

JMU's first engineering class includes 45 graduates and many have secured jobs with companies ranging from banks to government agencies and engineering firms

JMU’s first engineering class includes 45 graduates and many have secured jobs with companies ranging from banks to government agencies and engineering firms.

Imagine going to the hospital and not finding clean water, sterile surfaces or modern machines to measure your vitals. Now imagine walking five miles to get health services. This scenario, so foreign to Americans, is the unfortunate reality for large numbers of people living in Sub–Saharan Africa.

“In Africa, people struggle every day with things we take for granted,” says Dan Wolfe, an engineering student from Midlothian, Va. Wolfe is part of a group of seven engineering seniors that is designing a health clinic they hope will change the way health care is delivered in Sub–Saharan Africa. The goal is to create a design that will be adaptable so the clinics can be built in any Sub-Saharan community with available resources.

The ultimate goal of the project, to improve people’s lives, is a fundamental objective for the JMU School of Engineering, which will graduate its first class on May 5. Other members of the first 45 graduating engineering class are working on ways to improve alternative fuels research, biology research, electric–vehicle design and firefighting robot technology.

When this year’s seniors stepped into classrooms as the school’s first engineering freshmen in 2008, they entered a program that set out to be unlike any other, a program developed around teaching the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work.

“We ask: Is the design going to perform the function? What is the economic impact? Will it be marketable, viable? And what effect on people will it have and what is the environmental impact?” explains Patrick Nutbrown (‘12) of Springfield, Va. Nutbrown is part of a team designing a device that will enable researchers around the world to find the best way for using solar energy to produce hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen produced from sunlight is one of the most promising sources of energy because it is a clean energy carrier that can be produced in multiple ways, says Brandon Journell, a senior from Salem, Va. The challenge of solar–produced hydrogen, which first began in the 1970s during the first oil crisis, is finding the most effective process through which solar energy can be converted into hydrogen for use as an energy source.

The device being designed by the solar hydrogen team will standardize solar–hydrogen research by enabling scientists to test, measure and evaluate the production of hydrogen energy from solar energy and compare results.

“Other universities have done research with this as well, but not in any way that’s comparable,” adds Brad Wenzel of Wallingford, Pa. “With this testing apparatus, we hope to make a universal system so that scientists from all over the world can compare their results and find different efficiencies.”

In addition to the theories they are learning in classes, the members of the solar hydrogen team – as well as their classmates – are getting plenty of hands–on experience. The school puts a heavy emphasis on design and each student must take six semesters of engineering design courses. Few other engineering schools offer such a practical, hands–on approach to engineering undergraduates.

Senior John Murdock of Springfield, Va., says, “You go in the classroom. You see formulas, but when it’s hands–on, you run into unexpected challenges. It requires research and teaching ourselves. That is very helpful.”

Wenzel agrees. “We can go on and on about all the technical details, but what’s really helpful is how to work within a team. What we’re going to take away from this project is so much more than technical knowledge,” he adds.

Peter Epley of Springfield, Va., a member of the robot team, also points to his experience of working with a team as a strength of the program. “Each one of us has strengths. I’ve got a programming and computer background, but Jed [Caldwell of Purcellville, Va.], Pat [Byerly of West Friendship, Md.] and Matt [McHarg of Fairfax Station, Va.] have more of the civil and mechanical. And Joey’s [Lang of Centreville, Va.] got a very strong electrical background. And this has come from the last four years of each of us finding our niches within the department.”

“No one knows it all, so we bring our own interests and expertise together. The result is collaborative problem solving,” Lang says.

“We graduate very marketable,” Byerly says. “We have learned to communicate, work in teams and solve problems. We’ve been exposed to a broad variety of engineering. We feel we can tackle any problem we’re given.”

The problem the robot team is tackling could someday improve safety for firefighters. The team is designing a robot that can maneuver through a burning structure, locate the fire and extinguish it without any human assistance.

Keith Holland (‘00), an alumnus who returned to teach in the engineering program, hears positive reports about the training JMU engineering students receive. “The feedback that we’re hearing from industry partners that we work with is that an engineer who is trained as a generalist and has the ability to analyze complex problems is incredibly valuable, especially in today’s market,” Holland says.

One of the program’s first faculty members, Olga Pierrakos, adds, “One of the great things about JMU, it’s flexible. Nobody puts boundaries around what you do. This is true cross–disciplinary thinking and collaboration. And that’s what we tell our students: Don’t put boundaries where they don’t need to exist. You can do anything with engineering.”

Read more about JMU’s first class of engineering students at www.jmu.edu/engineering/index.html.