James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the eighth installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning 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 in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

Projects Impress Junior Who Will be Member of Second Graduating Class

Richard Arena, a junior this year, will be part of the Department of Engineering's second graduating class in May 2013.

Why did you choose JMU?

JMU was an emerging program, and I know that I learn best through hands-on activity.

How soon did you get hands-on experience?

PHOTO: Richard ArenaFrom the start, we are doing small competitions like the Duke Dog Fling. Some students look at some of the things we did freshman year as trivial, as arts and crafts things, but really it was pretty cool stuff. They give us a small fan and a bunch of office supplies and say, "You have 20 minutes to make a pinwheel that will turn a straw as an axle that will pull a string that will lift a bucket of marbles off the floor using the force of this little fan. Lots of kids could look at that and say what can we get from this? In actuality, looking back on it now, learning how to work in the different groups and the cohesiveness that we picked up then really taught us how we each interact with different students and how each of us learns the best. That was as much a team-building exercise as it was conceptualization work. I'm sure there was design- and instruction-based material in there, too, but the most we got from that was learning how to communicate ideas and learning how to work together.

Talk about another hands-on learning experience.

Sophomore year, we built a bike for an area high-school student named Ricky who has cerebral palsy. As sophomores, throughout the fall, they put us through a whole design process — we really got the design process hammered into our heads. It took us all semester and at the end of the semester everything really came together. Sometimes, we were like, "Why is this so reiterative?" But, you know, that's what the process is with design. The process is try it out, make it work, analyze it, ask what went wrong, analyze that, then go back and make it work right. So it's all about refining and refining until you get a final product and a final result. When we were doing it, it was frustrating at times because we didn't understand yet, but we trusted the professors, we went forward with it, and then we knew it so well by spring semester that we were scrambled into different groups and the whole design process that took us all fall semester to get through, we hammered through in two weeks in spring semester.

It sounds pretty rewarding.

The whole thing is cool. I talked to Ricky recently, and he just raced his first 5K with his bike. We are absolutely in the thick of the program as sophomores, and then we really got to touch a kid's life in a truly significant way with our project.

Now that you're a junior, what are you working on?

For my capstone project, I'm working with seven other guys and we're building an electric motorcycle. We have a battery team and then the vehicle integration team. That's the team I am on. We use what we get from the battery team, and we put all the pieces together on the motorcycle chassis.

What is your main role?

PHOTO: JMU student and faculty I always saw myself as being the guy who's going to be doing the metalwork and the welding because that's what comes easy to me and that's what I am good at, but that's not what I'm actually doing. This is an electric motorcycle, so we need a lot of readings on how the throttle behaves with the motor and the controller and the RPMs from the motor and the ratio from the motor to the wheels, so we have this high-powered data logger, this electric box that gets all these different readings through different ports that pull into different sensors — and when nobody stepped up to take on the data logger, I took it on. You really have to get to know all the components on the motorcycle in order to understand the types of settings you need to record the kind of data that you need. I am learning so much, and it just continues to reinforce that so much of engineering is process, process, process.

Do you get much support from the engineering faculty?

I really like working with Dr. Rob Prins. He is always there for us. If we need him, he is there to listen. He'll give advice, but he'll never give us answers. He is so patient that, for example, if you can't remember something so simple that you just know you should be able to remember whatever it is, he never loses his temper. He just helps you work through the logic of the problem until you come up with the answer yourself. That is invaluable for the times when we really are on our own, we can focus on the steps that we have taken to get to where we are at the time. It really is a learning process.

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