James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the 17th 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.

Solar Hydrogen Team Relishes Accomplishments, Variety of Experiences

As the members of the solar hydrogen capstone team approach graduation, it is clear they have a firm grasp of the holistic approach to engineering that is taught at JMU.

“We’ve learned the skills needed to be engineering ‘versatilists’,” said Patrick Nutbrown of Springfield, Va.

The Department of Engineering approach asks students to look beyond technical skills to understand the ramifications the practice of engineering has on people, the environment and economies. It’s an approach the industry is grappling with. “Increasingly these challenges will be solved by engineers working collaboratively with others: scientists, social scientists — a whole range of people,” Ian Waitz, engineering dean at MIT, has said.

Nutbrown says it has been the engineering coursework plus business courses plus their extensive design projects plus honing communications skills that he believes gives them an edge.

PHOTO: Brandon JournellFor Brandon Journell of Salem, Va., required courses in management of technology and business, some taken through JMU’s College of Business, have brought everything together.

“Those courses coupled with the systems analysis class and our design curriculum really bring in the phased, iterative, incremental design process into everything, not just one project. Our job description should just read ‘problem solvers,’” Journell said.

John Murdock, also from Springfield, is equally confident in their ability to “go into any industry setting and analyze a system, a process, based on the four pillars of sustainability,” he said.  As someone with real-world business experience under his belt, having run a marketing business during his years at JMU, Murdock understands the importance of the multi-faceted approach they have learned.

Like his fellow capstone members, he’s excited about the versatility that his JMU engineering degree has provided him and his classmates, a dimension that is leading them in many directions. “If you look at our graduating class, it’s very diverse,” Murdock said. “We have people continuing with research in specific disciplines, others want to go into industry, others are going into engineering design and policy working in the more human aspect.”

With graduation looming, Murdock is weighing his options. He has a couple of offers on the table and he’s eager to move into industry.

PHOTO: John MurdockLike Murdock, Journell is still making decisions — maybe graduate school or maybe the job market, but he’s not in a hurry. Journell is planning to take the summer off to decide.

Shortly after graduation, Brad Wenzel will join a small engineering firm as a mechanical engineer near his hometown of Wallingford, Pa. He chose the small firm rather than a large firm for the depth of experience he’ll get.

“I can have more of an impact. I can stand out as opposed to being a number on a chart. I can interact with my boss one on one. I think that’s important because I’ll be able to learn a lot from him and he’ll be able to learn from me,” Wenzel said. Working under a professional engineer, he’ll be gaining the experience needed to acquire his professional engineering license.

Nutbrown is also interested in industry. “I want to be on the cutting edge, probably with a small company,” he said. With leadership skills he’s gained during his years at JMU, he’s confident that he’ll end up in engineering management.

“Because of my experience at JMU, I’m prepared to go out and talk about the social implications of engineering.”  Someday Nutbrown would like to start his own company.

Over the past two years, the four-member capstone group has designed a process and a device to test materials used to produce hydrogen gas from sunlight. The next student engineers, including Nutbrown’s younger brother Stephen, will develop a beta prototype and begin testing the device. When fully developed, the device will standardize research into the viable conversion of hydrogen into a clean and renewable energy source.

With their project packed up and delivered, the team is looking forward, even though leaving JMU means breaking up what has come to feel like a family.

 “We even look alike,” said Murdock, “especially when we all had buzz cuts.”

“For the past two or three years, I’ve seen these guys every day, so it will be weird waking up and not seeing them,” Wenzel said. “We’ll definitely be staying in touch.”

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