James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the 16th 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.

Africa Clinic Team Reflects on Milestones, Looks to the Future

Gathered around a table in the geographic science spatial analysis lab, seven JMU engineering seniors lean forward to watch. On the screen is a computer-generated model of a sustainable health clinic they have spent the past two years designing. Working together as a team, the group developed the model they hope will be adapted all across Sub-Saharan Africa some day.

From the beginning, the project was huge, even for the largest and most diverse capstone team in JMU’s first engineering class. Their objective was to design a clinic that would be environmentally and economically sustainable, that would fit appropriately into African society and that would use available, modern technology.

“I think we’ve definitely learned the importance of narrowing your scope,” said Dana Anderson of West Chester, Pa.

“We took basically a whole health clinic system and divided it up into subsystems. And then from that subsystem, actually made a prototype,” said Leah Haling, from Arlington, Va.

Each semester the group returned to their original design and refined it, a process that will continue after graduation. Already the team has worked with a group of sophomores and juniors who will continue the project.

PHOTO: JMU students discuss projectOver two years, they’ve laid the groundwork,  said Dan Wolfe of Fairfax, Va., but a lot still needs to be done. “You need to do things like solar studies to determine if your buildings are in the best possible place to maximize your solar collection,” he said, “as well as doing things like a building analysis to determine if your selection of earth block will be the best material to allow for a comfortable environment inside.”

“Right now, this is designed to be generic,” said Adib Amini, from Fairfax, Va. Before a clinic could be built, adaptations wold be needed to fit the chosen building site. "A lot of things would be dependent on that,” he said.

One bit of advice they can pass on: “I would probably map out what we would do for the next two years, have a schedule,” said Ericka Smith of Richmond, Va.

While the team has produced a computer model and lots of research to go along with it, learning how to work together as a team was one of the most important accomplishments, said Brian Morrison of Landsdowne, Va. Valentina Sanmiguel, an international student from Columbia, agrees: “When you’re working in a group it doesn’t only depend on you. You’re responsible for everybody else’s time. You’ve got to work together.”

The multidisciplinary needs of the project and the team dynamic, characteristics of JMU’s approach to engineering, required the students to explore multiple areas of science and engineering, from chemical and mechanical engineering to geology and sociology — an added value to the students’ education.

Most engineering schools require students to choose a specific discipline, such as electrical or chemical engineering, at the beginning of the freshman year. JMU students, however, have the luxury of exploring many areas before they focus on one.

“The program helped me figure out what I wanted to do,” said Wolfe, who discovered his interest lies in computer engineering. After graduation, Wolfe plans to enter a graduate program in computer engineering.  His options include Villanova and the University of Delaware.

PHOTO: JMU students discuss clinicHaling will continue her education studying solar thermal energy in a mechanical engineering program at Arizona State University. With a teaching assistantship, Haling will teach undergraduates while she pursues her doctorate.  “Helping students learn — that’s what I’m passionate about,” she said.

Anderson will study civil environmental engineering at the University of Delaware with a concentration in civil infrastructure systems. As a research assistant, she will will study modeling natural disasters and look at  ways to improve safety for people effected by them.

Amini expects to enter a doctoral program in environmental engineering at the University of South Florida.  Morrison will intern this summer at SAIC, an innovative engineering company, and then pursue a job in industry. Smith is exploring graduate programs, possibly in sustainable systems or even chemical engineering, an interest she discovered at JMU.

Still weighing her options, Sanmiguel is also considering South Florida, but more immediately she is looking forward to spending the summer in her home country. “I can’t wait,” she said.

Asked whether they made a good decision to pursue engineering at an engineering program that was untried and untested, the group’s consensus was a resounding “yes.”

“[The program had] a positive contribution to our overall development as students,” Wolfe said. “Although we may have struggled in some of those courses because it was new, I feel like in the end, to come out successful in that class, we had to dedicate the time to succeed.  . . . We all gave it our best. In any situation in life, there will be situations later when you may get a job or work for someone where there are problems in the project.  . . .  Having been through some classes that may have been a struggle, you know what to look for. You know how to succeed on your own. You become more independent.”

Series At A Glance