Mechanical Engineering: A New Mexico Tech Success Story

SOCORRO, N.M. May 9, 2012 – In eleven short years, the Mechanical Engineering Department has exploded to become the largest on campus, comprising more than 25 percent of the undergraduate population.

Dan Meisner (right) explains his team's design for a new wind turbine to fellow student Matthew O'Keefe.

The Mechanical Engineering Department hosts design conferences each semester to give students plenty of practice presenting their projects.

Jordan Klepper (right) discusses his design project with fellow student Will Reiser.

Team Canary assembles their radio-controlled plane during the spring 2010 semester.

spacer-2tenthsinchwide Osmar Munoz discusses his design project with instructor Keith Miller.

This article appears in the current issue of Gold Pan, the alumni magazine.

"I think our growth has been due to a variety of reasons,” said Dr. Warren Ostergren, chair of the department. “But it’s been largely due to the hands-on activities of many labs and courses. Students learn by experimentation at the same time they’re learning the theories in the courses.”

Engaging New Students

Ostergren, who is known to students as “Dr. O,” said the upswing in mechanical engineering students is not just a local phenomenon, but a national trend as well. Students are realizing that a mechanical engineering degree affords a broad range of above-average-salary career options.

Founded in 2000 as Tech phased out the Engineering Mechanics program, the department awarded one bachelor’s in 2001 and hit double figures in 2005 with 15 degrees. The next year, 2006, the department awarded 30 bachelor’s. In May 2011, 47 students earned their bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, which was 23 percent of all bachelor’s awarded for the year. This year, the department again leads the way with 42 bachelor’s.

New students continue to lean heavily towards the discipline. In the fall 2011 semester, 314 students were declared as majoring in mechanical engineers, including 84 freshmen (or 26 percent of all first-year students).

“When students come to visit, they are engaged when they see our labs and our design projects,” Ostergren said.

Design Clinic

Mechanical engineers at New Mexico Tech have a rigorous curriculum that includes much lab work. The linchpin of the department’s regimen is the Design Clinic courses.

“I have found that we are unique at New Mexico Tech,” Ostergren said. “I’ve not found any other school in the country that has combined juniors and seniors in design clinics. It builds continuity into learning the design process. The juniors learn how to do projects from the seniors. Then, they become seniors and bring in recruits that they train.”

The two-year design clinic requirement also permits the department to embark on multi-year projects. Some projects have been ongoing for as many as five years.

“We’re not limited at all in terms of how big a project we can take on,” Ostergren said. “Students are able to take on projects of broader scope and that are more challenging.”

Not only do the mechanical engineering students get two years of design work, many of the projects have industry sponsors, giving students regular interaction with professionals.

“Sponsors contribute both funding and mentoring,” Ostergren said. “We want to find industrial sponsors so students have a chance to work on real-world problems. They learn what’s important in industry. They learn about priorities and what to expect on the job.”

In recent years, industrial sponsors have included Honeywell, General Electric, Aberdeen Proving Ground, the National Museum of Nuclear Science, Holloman Air Force Base, Up Aerospace, Sacred Power Corp., Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, just to name a few.

Students design and build airplanes, vehicles, security doors, high-speed sleds, satellites, rockets, gas guns, bomb chambers, heliostats, and many other inventions. Students employ math, modeling, analysis, testing and engineering – all combined to solve problems.

“They teach us how to think, not what to think,” said Leroy Garley, a 2006 graduate who now serves on the department’s Advisory Board.

The experience and mentoring are the most important thing sponsors bring to the table, but the funding is helpful as well. Ostergren said companies or national labs provide the money necessary to build prototypes, which can be quite expensive.

“Our students have better intuitive knowledge when approaching design projects,” Ostergren said. “Our graduates can begin their careers immediately, as opposed to learning design on the job, which is the norm. That’s our best calling card – when they hire one of our graduates, they come back for more.”

Update: Fabian Vigil in 2009 was New Mexico Tech's first graduate to get a job at the Honda Research and Development plant in Ohio. Another Tech grad went to Honda in 2010. This year, Ostergren said, five Techies in the class of 2012 have been offered jobs with Honda.

Preparing For A Career

Tami Dixon earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 2010, with a minor in aerospace engineering. She started her career at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard near Seattle. She said the biggest advantage she got from the design clinic regimen is communication skills.

“We [new hires] were all pretty overwhelmed with all the knowledge and information thrown at us,” she said. “But I think I communicated better and handled the stress and deadline better than my peers.”

A native of Farmington, Dixon said she and her design team gave eight presentations during her final year at Tech. Those experiences helped prepare her for the rigors of an engineering career. At Puget Sound, she works on mechanical systems of aircraft carriers, including elevators, hydraulics, catapults, and arresting gear.

“I knew how to talk to superiors, ask for help, ask questions and have open communication with people who have the knowledge base that I want,” she said. “My education at Tech challenged me enough to help me be successful in my career.”

The department added Dr. Julie Ford, associate professor of technical communications, to the roster this year.

“In engineering, communications is critically important,” Ostergren said. “From my industrial experience, I know that many high-level managers say that the vast majority of problems involve communication and the minority of problems are technical. We have to learn to communicate to propose ideas and to convince others that we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve always tried to emphasize it in design, but to have an expert like Dr. Ford on the team has been outstanding.”

Roushan Ghanbari was the Cramer Award winner in 2009, when she earned her bachelor's in mechanical engineering. After earning her master's, she returned to New Mexico and joined the department's advisory board.

Dr. Warren Ostergren (left) receives the Distinguished Faculty Award from university President Dr. Daniel H. Lopez during the President's Club Banquet in April 2012. Under Ostergren's leadership, the department has become the largest on campus.

Roushan Ghanbari, a 2009 graduate now working at Sandia National Laboratory, said that two years of design clinic presents crucial experiences for Tech students because of the regular interaction with sponsors.

“You meet with industry sponsors and you have to have something to show them,” she said. “You give them a briefing and you have to be prepared to discuss technical difficulties, budget issues, time setback and other issues. You have to be able to explain all facets of the project and be able to communicate well.”

Garley said he appreciates the education he received at New Mexico Tech because the department’s professors have a wide range of specialties.

“The professors have a good breadth of knowledge,” Garley said. “That helps narrow down what you want to do and helps prepare you to work in the field. I got everything I needed at Tech. I was perfectly prepared when I started my career.”

Garley served as president of the campus chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers while at Tech. After earning his degree, he started working at Eclipse Aviation, which was also the sponsor of his Senior Design Clinic project.

“They hired me after I graduated,” Garley said. “I know a lot of students who got jobs with their project sponsors. Some went to Honeywell. GE hired others. A bunch of different companies hired students. You build rapport based on the relationship with Tech.”

Paying It Back

Garley returned to school to get a master’s degree, which he expects to complete in May. Ghanbari and Garley spoke to the ASME student chapter in early March, offering advice on starting a career, interviewing skills and networking.

“We’re paying it back and helping build the next generation of engineers,” Garley said. “What we do in industry reflects on New Mexico Tech. And what current students do at Tech reflects on us.”

Ghanbari earned a master’s at Texas A&M in 2011 and joined the Advisory Board for the department after returning to New Mexico. She and Garley said they enjoy contributing to the department because they feel a sense of loyalty – to Tech, to the department and to Dr. Ostergren.

“Dr. O is the reason that our department has been so successful,” Ghanbari said. “He is the reason we got accredited and he’s the reason we have so many sponsors. He’s just phenomenal.”

Garley said that he will continue to support the Mechanical Engineering Department because he appreciates Ostergren’s dedication to education and to engineering.

“We see how hard he works,” Garley said. “We’re more than willing to help out. By helping him, we’re helping everyone in the department. When I tell people I went to New Mexico Tech, they immediately know I got a solid education. That makes me feel that the work I did at Tech is recognized and rewarded.”

Ghanbari said the small, tight-knit community at Tech fosters a sense of loyalty.

“Mechanical Engineering is the biggest department, but Tech is a small school,” Ghanbari said. “I went to Texas A&M and there was 53,000 students. Here at Tech, every one of my professors knew my name and who I am – as a person and as a student. They take the time to find out what your career goals are and what you’re interested in and they’re willing to help you. The level of interest is much higher in a small community.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech