Spectrum - Volume 17 Issue 14 December 1, 1994 - University Recognizes Exemplary Departments

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University Recognizes Exemplary Departments

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 14 - December 1, 1994

On November 17, Virginia Tech presented the first University Exemplary Awards, recognizing the departments of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Biochemistry and Anaerobic Microbiology, for innovative undergraduate programs that effectively link research and teaching. Each year, the awards program will select three Tech departments or programs that offer exemplary academic environments for students and faculty.

Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering

In 1893, Claudius Lee, a student at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, worked with faculty members to build laboratory equipment for the new Department of Electrical Engineering. Today, undergraduate students in Virginia Tech's Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering (EE) continue this century-long tradition by working with faculty members on research projects ranging from satellite communications to computer visualization.

The EE department's undergraduate curriculum emphasizes design and research. All undergraduates are required to take at least one course that focuses on design, and all three-credit senior elective courses must have a major design element. Students work on more than grades in these classes--they conduct state-of-the-art research and have made significant contributions in several fields, including fiber optics and design controls. During the 1994 spring semester, 42 students and 17 faculty members worked together on independent research projects.

EE faculty members and nearby industries have developed research programs for undergraduates.

Babcock and Wilcox Nuclear Service in Lynchburg sponsors an independent study course in robotics. For five years, the Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tennessee, has sponsored a program bringing senior Tech EE students together with Eastman engineers to solve industrial problems.

Undergraduates also work with the EE faculty on projects sponsored by the U.S. government. The successful "army ants" robotics research conducted by John Bay began with a National Science Foundation grant that funded work by Bay and five EE seniors. In one semester, the research team constructed the first generation army ant--a small robot that can lift a box and crawl with it. The success of the army ant project led to the establishment of a new EE senior elective course in robotics. The Tech EE department also has developed undergraduate courses in fiber optics, satellite communications, and hybrid microelectronics.

Virginia Tech EE classrooms and laboratories reflect the department's commitment to undergraduate education. All EE faculty teach undergraduate courses--a rare circumstance today at major research universities.

Mechanical Engineering Laboratory Sequence

"Research and teaching are inseparable," observes Walter F. O'Brien, head of the Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering (ME) Department. This concept has meaning for undergraduate students in mechanical engineering. In 1992, the department began a program that bases undergraduate laboratory experiments on state-of-the-art research conducted by faculty.

The award-winning ME program is a laboratory sequence--ME 4005 and ME 4006--that is mandatory for all of the department's undergraduate students. Each year, about 200 juniors and 200 seniors take these lab courses taught by ME faculty members Ricardo Burdisso, Thomas Diller, Alan Kornhauser, Charles Reinholtz, Harry Robertshaw, and Al Wicks.

In the first lab course, students learn to use lab equipment, instrumentation, and techniques, and to run experiments and record data from instrumentation with a computer software package, LabView. This technical knowledge prepares ME undergraduates for their research work in ME 4006, where they work with faculty members in six major research areas. This year, more than 300 undergraduates are involved in ME design projects outside the lab sequence, such as building solar and hybrid electric cars.

ME lab sequence students have collaborated in writing technical papers based on their research for professional journals and for presentation at conferences. Bioconversion Technologies recently hired two ME graduates who worked during their senior year on a research project sponsored by the company. Many ME undergraduates elect to continue in the department's graduate program, where their research experience is "a tremendous asset to the faculty," says Reinholtz.

Biochemistry and Anaerobic Microbiology

"We are committed to educate students with the basic principles and problem-solving skills they need to succeed in the many fields that rely on biochemistry," said Willam E. Newton, head of biochemistry and anaerobic microbiology.

"Participation in the research laboratory reinforces the principles presented in the lectures, fosters problem-solving skills, ignites the excitement of new discovery, and builds the students' confidence in their observation skills," Newton added.

The department, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has approximately 220 majors, about 100 of whom are juniors and seniors. Students are encouraged, beginning as sophomores, to take part in undergraduate research projects. Last spring, 26 students were engaged in research projects, and each of these had a department faculty member as a mentor.

Departmental faculty members also recently revised the curriculum to allow any student enrolled in undergraduate research the opportunity to develop their scientific communication skills by preparing and defending a senior thesis.