Students, companies benefit from interdisciplinary projects at Learning Factory

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Qisheng Ding admits building a portable escape room on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center is a little out of his comfort zone.

He’s a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, so the concept of building a storyline, developing computer coding, wiring lights and other electronics — all housed in a rented tent — was foreign to him. So was working with a team of other engineers outside of his field.

But that’s the point of the Learning Factory’s Capstone Design Project, a semester-long course that includes engineering students from the colleges of Engineering and Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS). In that time, students work together to complete an industry-sponsored project before displaying their work — in a battle for top awards from judges — at the showcase held each fall and spring semesters.  

Ding, who is used to working with polymers and materials for energy generation, said the project gave him a chance to work with other engineers on an interdisciplinary project much like those he’ll find as he begins his career in industry.

“I’ve never worked with engineering students from other colleges and they really did a great job of doing the coding, the lighting and circuits, which I definitely knew nothing about,” Ding said. “It was fun working as a part of a team.”

This semester, the escape room was one of 18 projects completed under the leadership of EMS faculty mentors. Students meet the first few weeks with industry sponsors to agree on a plan before spending the remaining portion of the 15 weeks to execute that plan.

Two teams developed the escape room, which was temporarily on display last week at the Jordan Center, but will permanently be housed in Reber Building. Designers themed the room “hidden figures,” referring to less commonly known yet influential engineers and mathematicians. The goal, said students, is to strengthen the knowledge of first-year students while increasing awareness and excitement for science fields.

When students enter the room, they’re trapped, and a “hidden figure” appears to help them sort out the science clues to escape.

Other projects within EMS focused on areas such as improving energy efficiency of buildings and manufacturing methods, taking sustainable approaches to power generation, commuting using e-bikes and improving 3-D printing techniques.

One project, “Personal protection equipment (rubber gloves) used in electric industry,” earned second place for best project. For FirstEnergy Corp., a power company, students improved the mobility of safety gloves used by workers handling high-voltage wiring.

Adviser Allen Kimel, associate teaching professor of materials science and engineering (MatSE), said it’s one of many projects he’s been a part of that feature innovative approaches to problem-solving. He’s been a part of the Learning Factory since 2012.

Kimel said students could be paired with a Fortune 500 company or a startup. Or even a student-sponsored concept. Even the makeup of the team is uncertain.  

One thing, he said, is certain. The interdisciplinary approach has produced the best results.

“I really love working with interdisciplinary teams because they’ve always been my best teams,” Kimel said. “This is one of the motivating factors at the end of the day and this is especially true for MatSE. In their careers, they’re often going to be working on teams where they’re the lone materials scientist.”

Semih Eser, professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, said because the projects are sponsored by industry and students work closely with sponsors, it gives students a real-world experience, rather than a classroom experience.

He said students have a budget, answer to industry leaders and present their progress and goals every step of the way.

“This is really a great step for a graduating senior to go to the other side of the professional world to see how professional communications take place,” Eser said. “In many cases they have a chance to visit the sponsor’s laboratories, plants or facilities.”

Kimel and Eser said companies also praise the benefits. Some seek out MatSE or energy engineering students for their specialized talents. For example, Kimel said, one company continuously requests MatSE students to improve the life of equipment used in fertilizer production. Other companies are seeking more efficient or sustainable ways of doing things.

“For those companies, to have students from different majors look at a problem from different angles — perhaps an angle that they have never thought of — could bring benefits and innovation to their research or development efforts,” Eser said.

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Last Updated June 07, 2018