Creatively Engineered?

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Sometime next spring or summer, in front of a class of engineering students at Florida Tech, Robert Weaver will jump on a surfboard and catch a wave in the name of science.

The lithe, young professor won’t be riding any old surfboard. It will be specially designed by legendary Melbourne surfer George Robinson to conceal sophisticated measuring tools, and it will be painted in ten-centimeter increments.

Robert WeaverThe moment Weaver catches that first wave the instruments hidden inside—along with wave gauges in the surf zone and videographers in the water and on land—will begin capturing the complex forces at work in that moment when board and surfer are lifted up and the thrill ride begins.

Weaver’s new course says something important about the way engineering is being taught in 2014 at FIT. Like other tech schools around the country, FIT knows that it if is to attract and groom the next generation of engineers, the course work can’t be all differential equations and fluid dynamics.

Especially in the early years, there must be a creative spark to help students understand why they must conquer the daunting schedule of math and science classes required to earn an engineering degree.

How else would they understand what happens when the wave picks up the board?

“That is exactly why I proposed developing this class—to spark interest in engineering and show people that even in some of the most benign places there is really complicated physics at work,” said Weaver, an associate professor of ocean engineering who surfs as a hobby. “They will never look at the ocean the same way.”

But FIT’s motivation in approving inspired ideas like Weaver’s class on the engineering of surfing goes beyond that. It comes from an understanding that in this Age of Innovation, the successful engineer won’t be someone trained simply to produce a perfect widget. It will be a person broad minded enough to imagine something entirely different, the next Big Thing.

Abram Walton, who teaches the first batch of students earning degrees in FIT’s new Master of  Science in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, put it bluntly.

“Companies that aren’t being innovative, being creative, sticking to the same markets, expecting their customers not to vote with their feet are closing their doors.”

Abram Walton

FIT’s commitment to inspire more creativity in its engineering majors—who represent 60 percent of the students on campus—arises from a collision of forces. The nation’s innovation-driven economy creates a thirst for engineers, but the tough slog to a degree causes many who enroll in the major to give up.

In 2012, concerned about the shortage of engineers, President Obama launched an initiative to train 10,000 new engineers a year. He did so against the backdrop of a 2010 survey by the American Society for Engineering Education that showed that three of every 10 students who enroll as engineering majors at private schools don’t earn a degree in the field. The graduation rate at public universities was dramatically worse.

The society’s own website offers this assessment. “American engineers were heroes in the fifties and sixties,” the organization says under the tab labeled About Us. “The space race focused the country on the need for engineering, and top students flocked to the profession. Today, engineering has lost its glamour.”

FIT, like its counterparts nationwide, is responding to this challenge with fresh thinking about how to develop engineers for a new economy.

Early on, students tackle design projects that showcase the creativity involved in engineering. They work with students from other majors in courses like Walton’s business-school class on innovation and entrepreneurship, exposing them to different ways of thinking. They take courses in the humanities to broaden their minds. And on campus they find a rich cultural life that lures them into a world beyond calculus and physics.

Matthew Jensen, who teaches a general engineering course for first-year students, knows as well as anyone how intimidating an engineering education was before schools like FIT departed from the classical approach.

Matthew Jensen

Traditionally, engineering was a five-year program. Students didn’t take an actual engineering course until their second or third year. Until then, they faced a steady diet of brutally difficult classes on subjects like fluids, statics and thermodynamics.

“The curriculum is very off-putting. It’s not easy,” remembered Jensen, who clearly has his own creative streak, as his office is decorated with memorabilia from his favorite TV show, “The Simpsons.”

Students who took Jensen’s introduction to engineering class last fall faced an entirely different reality. They began with a simple engineering challenge—design and build a miniature golf hole and calculate the score that would represent par.

Classmates worked in teams. Each team got a budget and a set of dimensions defining the space their hole could occupy. Otherwise, there was no limit to the creativity they could display in design. Students had plenty of great ideas, among them a hole that required a player to putt up a ramp and launch the ball over a basketball court and into a tiny net, a tough par by any standard.

What they learned, Jensen said, is that without all those math and science classes they didn’t have all the tools they needed to rise to the challenge. And when par was added to the equation, they had to think not only about the hole they were building, but also about the person who would be playing it—the customer.

“They really got to learn their own limitations,” Jensen said. “That got them looking toward the future. They can start to see the end game. In a few years, their courses will give them those skills.”

They also learned, he said, that the engineers of the future need tools beyond math and science. They need to be able to communicate—to their teammates, their potential customers, the venture capitalists who finance their dreams.

“I tell my freshmen, I don’t care how great an engineer you are—you could cure cancer—if you can’t tell anyone about it, if you can’t describe it so that someone can duplicate it, it’s useless,” Jensen said.

In a few years, flush with this new view of the possibilities, perhaps even harboring visions of a new product that will make it big, engineering students might venture into the business school and take Walton’s master’s program on innovation and entrepreneurship.

There they will encounter a completely different world than the one they shared with their fellow engineering majors. Last year’s class, Walton said, included students majoring in Spanish, communication, biology and political science, who bring to the table an entirely different mind-set.

That is precisely what Walton is looking for—the political scientist challenging the engineer, the Spanish major taking on the biologist.

“What science has shown,” he said, “is that the more interdisciplinary you get, the more creative the solutions are.”

Walton joined FIT two years ago after teaching at Purdue and the University of South Florida, and he has been impressed with how much more open Florida Tech is to innovation, how nimble a smaller, private institution can be in this fast-changing world.

In those ways, FIT is a bit like an Internet start-up company—whose way of thinking represents exactly what Walton seeks to instill in his students.

Walton knows from experience what the classically trained engineer will be thinking when he walks into class. He will be thinking about the nifty widget he is now trained to build and how to create a market for his product.

Here is what he will hear the first time he presents his ideas to Walton, a dynamo and entrepreneur who is unflinchingly frank. “Sit down.”

“We’re not even talking about product yet. Who’s the customer? Who’s the market? What’s the product-market fit? No, no, go sit down,” Walton said, chuckling.
Walton insists that his students—and last year there were four engineers among them—operate on a new paradigm.

Don’t think about widgets. Think about what customers need. Understand the market.

Only then can you build a successful widget.

Every week, Walton’s students start with data on what customers need, develop a hypothesis on what might work, test it with the market, come back with new data and present what they’ve learned to their professor and sometimes a panel of experts. They have no choice but to think differently.

“It’s either legit, it’s going to work in the real world, or sit down,” Walton said, again with a laugh.

Students made their final presentation to a panel of venture capitalists—business leaders who could literally write a check if the idea impressed them—and for Walton it turned out to be a proud moment. One panelist stood up at the end, turned to the students, and asked what they had learned.

“Every single one of them said it had finally resonated with them that it’s not about the product,” Walton remembered, smiling. “It’s not about building the widget first. It’s about market research, customer discovery, finding the need and then resolving it with a product that fits.”

This is the way of thinking that defines the Age of Innovation, and FIT believes it takes more to nurture it than even the most innovative engineering or business classes.

It takes exposure to arts, culture and the world outside engineering to broaden students’ horizons and spark new ideas.

CULTURE SHOCK

That is why FIT President and CEO Anthony J. Catanese is committed to expanding cultural life on campus and in the classroom. Engineering students are now required to get outside their discipline, to take courses in the humanities.

They might, for instance, take a music class with Jamie Younkin, who understands the demand for creativity in the engineering disciplines and is passionate about the role the arts can play in opening students’ minds.

Jamie Younkin

Younkin has spent a lot of time thinking about creativity—whether one is born with it or whether it can be taught—and has come to this conclusion:

“It has to be inspired, and that is what the arts are really good at. And you can’t just inspire it once. You have to constantly keep it interesting—spark after spark after spark.”

The accomplished musicologist has seen FIT work to keep it interesting for seven years now—ever since she was hired to build a music program and found that her first ensemble consisted of a violin, a double bass and an electric bass.

“Mozart simply did not write for this kind of ensemble,” she noted dryly, so they made their own music, based on a student’ favorite song by Jefferson Airplane.

Seven years later, FIT has an array of accomplished musical groups—jazz bands, 25-instrument ensembles, chamber orchestras. It has proven a boon to students who grew up playing an instrument—Jensen, for instance, was cellist in his youth—and don’t want to lose that part of themselves.

“Music, she said, is a particularly good fit for engineers, and not simply because there is correlation between music and math, given that any performance involves measurements in real time.

“Engineers are trained to avoid and calculate risk,” Younkin noted. “That’s a very good thing, especially if you’re going to send rockets into space.

Music is a discipline that forces you to take risk, manage it in time and recover, and that is something invaluable for students’ lives.”

Humanities classes represent only the beginning of FIT’s commitment to a cultural life on campus. Students have an array of opportunities to immerse themselves in new worlds. It might be the theatre troupe, which recently performed Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” It might be an exhibition or hands-on class at the Foosaner Art Museum or the Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts. It might be a master class with a musician in residence, the latest addition to FIT’s cultural scene.

The current musician in residence is renowned jazz vibraphonist and pianist Christian Tamburr, whom Younkin described as “dynamic, all energy and a phenomenal virtuoso on multiple instruments.” In addition to performing and conducting Master Classes, Tamburr cut his fifth album this summer at the new state-of-the-art recording studio at WFIT    ’s broadcast center on campus.

Students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the enriched cultural life at FIT, Younkin said. “Those exhibits and the artists they bring in are sparks for us too as faculty, and we need that, all the time.”

As it strives to develop fresh thinking in its engineering students, FIT is setting the tone with innovations of its own, like Walton’s new master’s program in entrepreneurship. Ted Conway leads the university’s newest venture, a bid to build Central Florida’s leading program in the brave new world of biomedical engineering.

Ted Conway

A Central Florida native, Conway was lured to FIT three months ago from what he called the best job he’s ever had, as a program director for the National Science Foundation. The opportunity at Florida Tech was simply too good to pass up.

“One thing I wanted to do was to leave a legacy in biomedical engineering here in Central Florida,” said Conway, noting that few places represent a better place to establish such a program given the region’s aging population.

The most complex of engineering fields, biomedical engineers study the machine that is the human body, seeking to understand its structure and function and to discover how to fix it when it breaks down.

In the years to come, Conway will lead FIT’s program in two areas. The more immediate is bio-manufacturing, using stem cell technology to create new tissues or organs. The more distant goal is neuro-engineering, taking on degenerative diseases associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Like Walton, Conway has been impressed by his early experiences at FIT and the creative ferment brewing in the university’s engineering disciplines. Nothing, he believes, represents that more vividly than the university undertaking this new venture.

“Florida Tech had the foresight to build biomedical engineering,” he enthused. “We’re taking on very complex problems and trying to develop complex tools to solve those problems.”

If anyone has the ideal vantage point for appreciating FIT’s efforts to broaden the horizons of engineering students, it is the man whose new surfing class is emblematic of the university’s dedication to igniting a creative spark. Professor Weaver is a man who carved his own path, studying philosophy and anthropology as an undergrad before diving into engineering in graduate school.

“I think it helped me in two ways,” Weaver said. “It’s helped me here, teaching, but it’s helped me in life in general, being able to get your mind open and exposed to other things. If all students get is engineering, I think they are missing out on a broader aspect of mental development.”

—Steve Proctor

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