James Madison University

LOGO: JMU School of EngineeringAbout this series: This is the 12th 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.

Quest to Design Cutting-Edge Device, Process Proves Challenging and Rewarding

As gas prices rise and concerns about fossil fuels mount, a group of JMU engineering students is working to advance research methods that could lead to an eco-friendly and sustainable way to create hydrogen fuel. The solar hydrogen capstone team is developing a device that will allow future scientists to test, measure and evaluate the production of hydrogen using solar energy. It's been a long and challenging road.

"We've definitely run into some obstacles. To be honest, we had some growing pains to start the project. We had to figure out what we were going to do," Patrick Nutbrown said.

PHOTO: Solar Hydrogen"We started with five customer needs," John Murdock added. As they got into the project, however, "then we found 49. Then we started the design. It became an iterative process."

From a technical standpoint, the hardest part has been developing the base of scientific knowledge to solve the problem. "There are a lot of moving parts in this system, a lot of technologies," Murdock explained. "It's primarily a research-based project, so when you dive into the research you might find one of two things applicable to the current system."

This semester the group is finalizing their design of the solar hydrogen testing device and getting it ready to hand off to the next capstone group, who they hope will continue to improve the technology and process they have created.

But while developing the technology, the group members also acquired another set of important skills.

"You learn to understand other people and their backgrounds. You fit it to their needs, focusing on the customer," Murdock said.

"We had a general idea about this project," Nutbrown said, "but we were given a limited amount of guidance, so we had to take it upon ourselves to figure out the team roles, how we were going to manage our schedules. We not only got to take it from an engineering and technical problem solving (perspective), it also required organization and project management—along with people skills."

"You go in the classroom. You see formulas," Murdock added, "But when it's hands-on, you run into unexpected challenges. It requires research and teaching ourselves. It's very helpful."

PHOTO: Solar HydrogenBrad Wenzel agreed. "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 said.

"We learned a lot about each other, a lot about project management and how engineering design can be applied to other projects," Nutbrown said. "It can be applied to your personal life as well."

The solar hydrogen group has worked on their project for most of the last two years, and they've done so above and beyond a heavy course load of classes familiar to all engineering students, including thermodynamics, statics and dynamics, circuits, fluids and multiple levels of advanced calculus.  They have also taken classes in engineering management and economics, and multiple semesters of engineering design.

"Engineering is a discipline that gets ingrained in your life," Brandon Journell said. Still, the engineering students have found time to have a rich collegiate experience at JMU.

Despite their demanding curriculum, the team members do not spend all their time working. They have found time to form friendships with students in other disciplines and to explore interests outside of their classrooms and labs.

"It's important to keep that balance between personal life and school work," said Nutbrown, who enjoys spending his downtime with friends.

Journell enjoys music and snowboarding in his free time, although he admits with a smile, "I'm not very good at it."

Murdock, an entrepreneur at heart, runs a marketing business on the side and plays club soccer. Wenzel, a former high school athlete, referees intramural hockey and basketball games.
Like most engineers in the real world, members of the solar hydrogen capstone group have developed their project step-by-step from the ground up. And every one of them has found JMU's hands-on approach to engineering to be very valuable.

"To be honest," Nutbrown said, "it's goes beyond what I expected."

Series At A Glance