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  5. Freshmen get an all-in introduction to engineering

Freshmen get an all-in introduction to engineering

The 14 freshmen had almost no background in engineering, and had never written a college paper, much less a research paper. Yet by the end of their first semester at UW-Madison, they had completed a seemingly daunting project: Coat an engine with a catalyzing substance, add extra hydrogen to the combustion process, and determine if those changes reduced vehicle emissions.

To do that, they had to take the engine apart themselves, coat it, and put it back together. They had to design a test protocol, find a way to trap engine emissions, and learn how to perform Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to analyze the content of those emissions.

Their project was part of of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Marc Anderson's section of Introduction to Engineering Design, a course that provides pre-engineering students an overview of engineering, plus hands-on experience with a client-centered team project. In this case Anderson, who develops nanoparticle coatings for specific applications, was both the client and professor.

In the course, the students learned what different types of engineers do. They learned, with help from Anderson and Mechanical Engineering Faculty Associate Glenn Bower, about engines, the science of how emissions form, and the skills they would need to design a high quality experiment. And they learned that engineering takes lots of initiative, creativity and curiosity.

"All I knew about engines was they were this giant fireball that creates work," says team member Alex Bare. "And we had to design a whole process for testing all that. It was a lot of trial and error."

The students put in more than 15 extra hours in the lab, dismantling and reassembling their engine several times when it failed to start, and collecting emissions in special bags.

"When we thought we were doing something right, it ended up failing completely or we had no idea what we were getting, so we'd have to go back or start over again," says student Saager Paliwal.

The data the group finally collected wasn't perfect, in part because of the time constraints of the semester. However, several members have continued the project into the spring semester. So far, the coating seems to reduce hydrocarbon emissions—even more so when the electrolyzer added hydrogen to the fuel mix. The increase in carbon dioxide and toxic nitrogen oxides, Anderson says, was also a predicted result, thanks to an increased rate of combustion and higher temperatures.

Anderson says that thanks to the students' work, he has confirmation that the platinum in his coatings indeed can catalyze fuel combustion. "Our results are similar to the literature data," he says. "They actually showed this stuff works. By the end of the spring 2013 semester, they should have enough data to write a paper."

More importantly for the students, they've gotten a head start on learning basic engineering procedures and exploring what they want to do with their engineering education.

"Engineering is a lot more social than I thought coming in," says student Bradley Meilinger. "There is a lot of passing ideas around; you don't just hand your ideas down to someone."

Paliwal says he's more sure he wants to do mechanical engineering, now that he's had a taste of it. And Bare, who is interested in energy, knows now that he wants to focus on the overlap between mechanical and electrical engineering.

Katie Lawrence, another student who worked on the project, says she's even more sure she wants to be a mechanical engineer. "It gave me the understanding that to be an engineer, you don't necessarily have to be the smartest in math or science, but if you're able to work in a team and think on your feet and be a problem-solver, if you put in the work, you'll be successful."

Bower, who helps teach the course, says it will give the students a solid foundation for their future engineering classes. "When they get into their classes now and they see the theory, they can say, 'Oh yeah, I already did that,'" says Bower.

For freshmen, this particular project was advanced work on par with master's-level research, he says. 

"These are chemical engineering subjects you might get as a junior or maybe even higher," says Anderson. "Generally, the projects I assign these students are way over their heads."

The students, who generally declare engineering majors as sophomores, feel the experience put them a step ahead. "We can say we were thrown into a project, we had no idea what we were doing, and in the end we learned how to swim," Paliwal says. "We came to UW-Madison as freshmen, but we're not freshmen anymore, not really."

Christie Taylor