James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the 18th 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.

Nutbrown Reflects on Strengths of Fledgling Program

Patrick Nutbrown of Springfield, Va., graduated May 5 as one of the 45 members of the first graduating class of the Department of Engineering. Patrick had not decided what he would be doing next, but was looking into working in the engineering industry. Grad school may be in his future, he said.

How would you explain JMU engineering to a high school student?
It’s a different degree. It’s not a specialized engineering degree. It’s more geared toward people who want to be real-world problem solvers. If you want to graduate and make a difference in whatever you pursue, come here and study engineering.

How is the program designed?
In the first two years, you get all of your math and science and you get all those problem-solving, analytical experiences. You learn how to start thinking about problem-solution, the steps to take to get from one to the other. And you do a lot of team-based projects.

PHOTO: Patrick NutbrownTalk about the four pillars of sustainability.
Through the four pillars — the environmental, the technical, the social and the economic — we know how to look at a problem or an engineering project from those perspectives and see the implications it has on those different areas. It is a great tool for us to be able to go in and analyze systems and projects from that perspective. And we already have experience doing this. We’ve done it over and over. We have done case studies, and we’ve done stuff on real-world projects in addition to our own stuff. We have the ability to go out there and talk to people about how our engineering projects are going to impact people.

It’s more than just an academic approach, isn’t it?
Oh sure. We’re being taught from an academic approach, but you can apply this type of thinking to any problem. The systems-level thinking that we’ve learned in engineering I’ve taken to my daily life. I’ve used it to coordinate my studies, the stuff I do with my friends, my work, everything. It really does help you balance out everything that you’re doing.

Talk a bit about what you have learned from your capstone project.
Originally we were trying to produce hydrogen with a photo-electrode. So we’re shining sunlight on this thing, it’s producing a current, it’s separating the electrolyte into hydrogen and oxygen gas and then we’re capturing the hydrogen. That’s the big picture. We were going to do the whole thing — building the photo-electrode, building the device to test it, doing the testing and producing the results; all of it. That was the original scope of our project. We started trying to wrap our heads around it and get with all the chemistry, science and all of it, and it seriously just overwhelmed us. We had no clue what was going on.

That sounds like a pretty rough start.
For our first presentation, we were basically talking heads for about 10 minutes, and at the end everybody was like, “What the heck did they just talk about?” We really had no clue what we were doing, so we had to sit down as a team and figure things out ourselves, figure out how we could narrow the scope so that we could have a product to show people once we graduate. We narrowed our scope down to just doing the testing device. It’s been going very well, too. The capstone is a great experience because — just like anything else in life — it is whatever you make it. They basically let us run with it. They didn’t tell us what to do here. They let us figure it out ourselves.

Do you feel well prepared for whatever is next?
We learned a lot about a lot of different things, so we have a perspective that other students who are graduating from different undergraduate engineering programs can’t say that they had.

Series At A Glance