By Leslie Mertz
How are the welfare of puppies and Oakland University’s (OU’s) new Engineering Center connected? The answer lies in a new approach to teaching, learning, collaborating and reaching out to the business and nonprofit communities.
The story begins with three events:
• Oakland University, Rochester, MI, moved the School of Engineering and Computer Science (SECS) to a 127,000-square-foot Engineering Center, which houses a state-of-the-art laboratory, classrooms and space for student organizations.
• The OU Senior Design Program was transformed by Program Director Michael Latcha, Ph.D., into a multidisciplinary design experience in which students can take advantage of new lab equipment and computer capabilities in the Engineering Center, and collaborate with community businesses and organizations to solve problems. As a result, students gain real-world experience to prepare them for the workplace.
• Amy Butler, executive director of the business incubator OU INC, began talking to Leader Dogs for the Blind of Rochester, MI, discovering that the nonprofit needed a few innovations, including a puppy transport and two redesigned operating tables. She contacted Latcha, who identified a great first project for the revamped Senior Design Program.
“Through OU INC, we heard that Leader Dogs needed some fairly specialized veterinary equipment that required the help of an engineer, so we took on three projects for them last winter,” Latcha says.
The first project was a complete redesign and machining of two lifting and tilting operating tables that permit the veterinarians to position dogs properly during surgeries that might take 10to 12 hours. The second project involved a redesign of the carts used to transport dogs through the medical facility.
“The third project was a puppy transport unit, which is something that is evidently not on the market,” Latcha says.
Puppies are birthed at people’s houses, and have to be transported back and forth to the vet during their first days.
“Until they grow to about five pounds, puppies have a very hard time maintaining their body temperature. For this reason, transporting litters is highly risky, especially during the winter, and there’s a chance during any transport that you may lose a puppy,” says Latcha.
The students finished all three projects, including the puppy transport, which was conceived and fabricated to accommodate as many as seven puppies at a time. The transport had to provide a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment for up-to-90-minute transports.
“The students actually built four different prototypes, and Leader Dogs will be evaluating them over the next year,” Latcha says.
Once he gets the feedback from Leader Dogs, students will revisit the transport and tweak it as necessary. “I have to say that the people at Leader Dogs were just overwhelmed with the stuff that our students did for them,” he says.
Only the beginning
Leader Dogs is just the beginning of the many possible partnerships awaiting Senior Design Program students says Butler.
“Through OU INC, I’m out there working with startups and growth-stage companies, and when there is potential, I’ll bring them in and introduce them to the Senior Design Program team to see if there’s a project we might be able to work together on,” Butler says. “In fact, I’ve got two or three lined up for this fall.”
This type of collaboration is a wonderful opportunity for both companies and students, she says. “The companies get help and innovation from our students, who are incredibly smart and talented. The companies get to know the students, and help develop the young minds that they may hire in the future.”
At the same time, students get hands-on, problem-solving experience. “That give and take is the beauty of the relationship,” Butler says.
At the heart of it all
The thread running through the Senior Design Program projects is and will continue to be the Engineering Center, says Latcha.
“When we designed the new center, the decision was made fairly early in the process to showcase our Senior Design Program, so it includes a huge, 3,000-square-foot lab where we can work up to 14 groups of about eight students, each with a full suite of electronic test equipment.”
The students also have access to computer equipment for design and simulation, and a separate, fully equipped machine shop that can be controlled from the lab. “In a very real sense, there are very few things that we cannot design and build,” Latcha says.
Student education is at the core of the center, according to SECS Dean Louay M. Chamra, Ph.D. “The first two floors of the building are all about the students and hands-on experience. The Senior Design Program and other student teams doing design projects such as building a car or robot use the lab and equipment. We also have space where student organizations can have meetings and discuss their activities,” he says.
That’s important, because the number of student engineering organizations has grown from three to 16 in just five years, and engineering enrollment is also at record levels.
Study and tutoring areas are also part of the center. Tutors are students who have previously excelled in the classes. The idea, Chamra says, is to help students in challenging classes and provide financial assistance to tutors so they don’t need an outside job while attending OU.
Another key component of the center is that it is open to students 24/7.
“Ours is the first building on campus where students have access to the building and lab after hours,” he says. “If you come in the evening between 8:00 p.m. and midnight, this building is buzzing with activity. We’re very excited about that.”
The purpose of the center is to engage students, provide excellent education and ready students for careers in the engineering profession, Chamra adds.
“Michigan has one of the most diverse economies in the nation. We have strong automotive, energy, defense, technology, IT and a strong health system. We need men and women from all ethnicities and backgrounds to consider engineering as a career to keep our economy strong.”
For Katherine O’Kane, former student in the OU Senior Design Program, who earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the university this year, “Senior Design never ended.” O’Kane is currently a teaching assistant for a senior design course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says that being involved in Senior Design at Oakland University helped prepare her for this position. “The new facility provides students with the space needed to build larger and more complicated projects.”
Whether building puppy transports or taking on other industrial challenges, the Senior Design Program is preparing students to enter the workplace, Latcha says.
“With the incredible resources we have in the Engineering Center, we are now aggressively seeking new industry projects. Students will continue to get real experience to help them land a job after graduation. That’s really the point of the center, the Senior Design Program and the whole experience at Oakland University.”
Why Diversity Matters
Oakland University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science (SECS) is notable for the high number of women faculty, but the accolades aren’t the reason the school seeks diversity. The SECS strives for diversity in its faculty because it’s good for students and the economy, according to Dean Louay M. Chamra, Ph.D.
“I believe that if we want to attract more females into engineering, we really need role models in the classroom, so they see female faculty actually teaching. Role models are important,” he says. “Even at the height of the recession in 2009 and 2010, we had a shortage of engineers. We need women, we need men, we need African Americans, we need Hispanics, we need all kinds of people in this profession to keep our Michigan economy strong,” he says.
The SECS is successful in recruiting faculty members from underrepresented groups, Chamra says.
“We always make a special effort to encourage people with the right qualifications to apply. We treat everybody the same way and let the best person win the spot, whether that person is male, female or of a different ethnicity or skin color.”
The SECS has been fortunate to attract so many women faculty members, Chamra says, acknowledging that OU has one of the nation’s highest percentages of female engineering faculty at nearly 20 percent. “We’ve had many qualified females applying for these jobs, and we’ve been able to provide them with nurturing opportunities such as providing an environment where both men and women are equally considered for leadership roles and employment salaries,” he says. “Our female faculty members are at the heart of our growth, through their qualifications and their great teaching. We are very lucky.”