Material Engineers Tackling Novel Senior Design Projects, Dec. 4, 2008

This is the third in a series of articles about the senior design classes in the engineering programs at New Mexico Tech. Previously profiled were the Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering classes. Next up: Petroleum Engineering.

By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., Dec. 4, 2008 – The six seniors in the materials engineering department are faced with interesting challenges in the Senior Design Clinic.

In two groups of three, the seniors have real-world engineering tasks that will challenge their critical thinking, problem-solving, knowledge of materials and communications skills.

One team is designing and building a disposable vacuum chamber that employs a novel coating process. The other team is working on lunar pavement.

Senior design classes have been around for many years, but were only formalized as an integral part of the engineering curriculum over the past five years. ABET, the engineering accreditation organization strongly urged Tech – and all universities – to implement such classes.

“These senior design clinics – or capstone projects – are great programs,” said Dr. Peter Gerity, vice president of academic affairs. “It’s practical experience in a team environment. We train our students in the same mode of industry. They get the awareness they need to enter the workforce.”

Professor Dr. Deidre Hirschfeld, the course instructor, said both projects seem loosely defined, which is typical situation for new engineers.

“These are real-world problems that are typical for new engineering hires,” Hirschfeld said. “They learn about teamwork and they learn how to use their entire education.”

Ryan Clark, Wes Horpedahl and Colin Pelletier are working with TPL Inc. of Albuquerque, a company that has sponsored Senior Design projects in the past.

A significant challenge for the vacuum chamber team is that they have to develop a design that will function with a tube that could be from 1-inch to 12-inches in diameter.

“We might not have one design,” Pelletier said. “We might need multiple solutions. The force that these chambers must withstand will be different depending on the diameter.”

Since the contraption must be disposable, the team also must consider end-of-life requirements. In other words, they have to be green.

“This poses a very novel problem,” Clark said. “This device has practical, industrial uses – and be disposable.”

The sponsors have asked the team to have a working prototype by the end of the fall semester. By the end of the second semester, the team should have accomplished the task and delivered a working model ready to be mass produced. The team will be able to test and evaluate their early prototypes using Tech facilities.

The team members are excited about their project. Horpedahl said, “We’re driving and we’re enthusiastic about this project, which makes it a lot easier.”

Hirschfeld said TPL Inc. has been an excellent sponsor. The team members have access to company facilities in Albuquerque and a high degree of communication.

“They’ve agreed to treat us like employees,” Horpedahl said. “Without the fringe benefits and without the pay.”

The second team is working with Amalgam Industries, a Los Alamos company.

Andrew Fairbrother, Toby Sachs-Quintana and Jarret Grout are working on designing a functional pavement that will be cost-effective and practical on the Moon. Read that again: three Tech seniors are trying to develop moon pavement.

“The only unusual part of this project is that it’s lunar,” Hirschfeld said. “It’s very common for engineers to be given a new material or a new process, even for entry level.”

She said the team’s two biggest obstacles will be cost-effectiveness and dealing with an engineering process in an extreme environment.

“Working in space is a bit different than working on Earth,” Fairbrother said. “We’ll have to work with available resources and we’ll have energy limitations.”

Since transporting paving materials to the moon is impractical, the Tech team must develop a paving method that uses lunar dirt and equipment that can operate on solar power.

They are working with experts from across the nation, from Kennedy Space Center to Los Alamos and points in between.

Sachs-Quintana said, “Some of this has been done before, but with limited success.”
Fairbrother said, “There’s a wealth of knowledge. We’re hoping to build on it and go further with a different idea. We’re taking a new approach and will try to get it to work.”

The moon pavement team has a small supply of simulated moon dust. They will use their materials engineering skills and creativity to devise a novel method of making pavement from that moon dust.

“We’re working with limited materials,” Fairbrother said. “It’s helpful to do a project that that is very difficult and has a lot of limitations. We will have to think critically about every step we take.”

In addition to tackling advanced engineering on real-world problems, senior engineering majors at Tech learn the process.

“In previous labs, we might collaborate a little,” Fairbrother said. “But now in Senior Design, we have to work together.”

Horpedahl said these realistic problem-solving tasks are excellent experience prior to entering the workforce.

“We’re working on someone else’s schedule and dealing with someone else’s money,” he said. “I’m not working on my budget, so we’re learning responsibility and accountability.”

Through partnerships with industry and government, students get a taste of the expectations they’ll face after graduation.

“If all their learning is theoretical, they will have problems in the workplace,” Gerity said. “The senior design clinics are a tremendous value to our graduates. We emphasize hands-on learning so much through our four-year programs, that our graduates have an advantage that is critical to getting an edge in the job market.”

– NMT –