Students learn how to sell the next big engineering idea

By Liam Jackson
May 04, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Clear, persuasive communication is the cornerstone of success in many careers — especially in engineering, where new ideas need funding before they can be tested and implemented. In one materials science and engineering course — MATSE 492W: Materials Engineering Methodology and Design — students are getting experience pitching engineering solutions to an industry and alumni board, which is preparing them for life after graduation.

The course was overhauled in 2013, when Joshua Robinson, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and Corning Faculty Fellow, took over the class.

“I was looking for ways to bridge the connection between what the students were learning in class and what they needed to advance their ability to select materials meaningfully and ultimately communicate their science to the world,” said Robinson.

As Robinson was brainstorming ideas, Allen Kimel, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and associate head for undergraduate studies, had sought feedback from the department’s advisory board on ways to set apart materials science and engineering students in the workplace.

“The consensus was that students needed to be able to sell, explain and defend ideas in concise, short statements, like a single-sided sheet of paper or an elevator pitch,” said Kimel.

Drawing on that feedback, Robinson and Kimel reinvented the course to challenge the students in a manner that resembled real life. They designed a competitive, elimination-style course in which students develop several honed communications throughout the semester, starting with an elevator pitch to their peers, followed by a one-page white paper and five-minute presentation to an alumni panel and ending with a five page proposal and 12-minute presentation to industry representatives. At the end, the winning team gets a $1,000 prize.

“In the communications they develop, students have to be able to formulate pathways to solve an opportunity they see, lay out a plan with milestones, propose budgets, request resources and create contingency plans for any obstacles they encounter,” said Kimel.

Grand challenges 

The students each propose a novel way to apply their materials science knowledge to address one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering — a critical grouping of problems that must be addressed and solved in order to maintain our national security, quality of life and sustainable future. The 14 challenges range from engineering better medicine to providing energy from fusion to making solar energy economical.

Several students sought to develop a new solution to address medical issues they or their family members live with every day.

Thomas Fry, a junior in materials science and engineering, designed a novel method for treating ruptured discs. In a high school soccer game, Fry jumped for a header, came down on his tailbone and was landed on by another player. He felt okay at first, but after the halftime break, he couldn’t stand up — he had ruptured one of the discs in his spine. Fry did not have surgery and is plagued by pain today.

“There’s really no good solution to ruptured discs. There’s a high failure rate for surgery, which often leads to people needing multiple surgeries throughout their life to keep up,” said Fry.

Multiple surgeries are sometimes needed because the materials used for artificial discs create extra stress on the surrounding vertebrae, which can be damaging, said Fry. His solution involves placing magnets in the vertebrae above and below the disc, creating a repelling force to balance the added stress.

Fry said that the course has been eye opening.

“It’s a 400-level materials science and engineering course, but it’s really a business course, and that’s out of our comfort zone,” he said. “As engineering students, we have the technical background, but we don’t typically focus as much on the business or selling side of engineering. It really sharpens your presentation and communication skills.”

“The course focuses on how to communicate your ideas to the general public. It also forces us to break down every part of our project and think about the little things that could lead to your project succeeding or failing,” said Michael Brova, a junior in materials science and engineering.

Brova’s father needs spinal surgery, so he too is investigating ways to treat spinal injuries that would not require follow-up surgeries. Brova is proposing to use an inflatable material that would mimic a disc in the spine.

Sarah Newby is another student whose project topic was driven by a personal health-related injury. At a power lifting competition in 2014, Newby broke her radius and ulna and has titanium alloy plates holding her bones together. Newby is proposing to use a bioabsorbable polymer for plates, instead of titanium, that the body would absorb and dispose of naturally, eliminating the need for subsequent surgery for plate removal.

High-stakes presentations 

Throughout the course, students are judged by industry and alumni representatives — first, members from the Graduates of Earth and Mineral Sciences (GEMS) alumni board, then at the end, a panel of both board and industry representatives.

This part of the course, though nerve racking, was the high point for some students.

“As I was getting ready to present, I looked out at the alumni and thought to myself, ‘Wow. This is pretty close to real-life engineering,’” said Newby. “Presenting in these high-pressure situations gives us a chance to test our communication skills.”

That’s exactly the intent of the course, said Joel Reed, GEMS president-elect and 1982 Ceramic Science and Engineering graduate, who volunteers as a judge and was instrumental in providing feedback used to establish the course.

“No matter what industry you go into, you need to be able to articulate a problem, request resources and defend your ideas. Having students practice this in the classroom means that the next time they do it — when they’re on the job — they’ll be much better at it,” Reed said.

Reed is a principal at Mereo, a company that specializes in helping organizations increase revenue and bring new products to market, so he can offer relevant feedback for the students’ projects. He says that the course has been “very enjoyable.”

“It’s nice to give back to the department and school that gave so much to me,” said Reed.

“It’s amazing how much time alumni give for this class,” said Robinson. “It really helps with shaping students—ultimately, Dr. Kimel and I just want to turn out the best engineers that we can.”

  • Sara Newby

    Sarah Newby, a junior in materials science and engineering, shows the spot where she had surgery. Sara broke two bones in her arm and utilized the MATSE 492 course to brainstorm and pitch a new method of treating broken bones.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated May 05, 2015