Sometimes engineering can be for the birds. That’s what about 70 students in Evelyn Malkus‘ Professional Expression course ECE 350 learned last semester when they were asked to help design a device to warn songbirds of the presence of danger.
The project was based on the work of wildlife ecology Professor Stanley Temple, whose five-year study found that free-ranging cats kill at least 7.8 million songbirds in rural Wisconsin each year. Temple is developing a device to prevent these attacks.
Malkus’ students got involved with the project through their unit on preparing proposals. In seeking a real-life dilemma for this portion of her curriculum, the adjunct assistant professor learned of Temple’s research and asked him if her students could develop prototype proposals for the bird-warning device. Temple, who is in the process of obtaining a patent through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, agreed.
After several hours of instruction on the mechanics of a proposal, and a briefing from Temple on his criteria for the device, the students were on their own. Working in groups of eight or nine, they researched component costs and tried to come up with unique approaches that would best meet the needs of their client. (Due to the pending patent, the specific criteria for the project cannot be detailed in this article.)
Completing such a task in three weeks “was really intense” for the students, says Malkus, adding that most of the work was done outside of class hours. “They spent a week in research, a week pinning down their design ideas and locating sources of components, and a week writing their proposals.”
Malkus graded her students on the structure and content of their reports, but this wasn’t the final step. During the last week of the semester, three judges–Temple, ECE lecturer Thomas Kaminski and Marnie Matt from WARF–were called in to an Engineering Hall auditorium to observe the presentations and grill the student engineers on technical aspects of their proposals.
The judges were intentionally tough in their questioning to give the students a taste of what it’s like to pitch a real idea to industry, explains Malkus. The evaluators were looking for innovative approaches, originality, thoroughness and overall effort.
Final costs for producing a prototype varied as much as the presentations themselves, notes Malkus. Many of the teams incorporated clever graphics and catchy company names.
While the proposal exercise did not produce any novel features that Temple will add to his bird-warning device, it did validate some of the work he’s already completed. “It was a realistic exercise for the students,” he says. “They did a good job.”
As Temple waits for final approval of his patent, his efforts are receiving positive attention from organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy located in Washington, D.C., and the Humane Society of the United States. These two groups have teamed up with an effort titled “Cats Indoors! The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats.”
Temple’s ultimate goal is to market his device to cat owners. Helping his cause is an endorsement from the National Audubon Society.
Students in Malkus’ classes will continue to pursue real-life projects as well. The tradition began at least 30 years ago, and for the past 13 years it’s been her responsibility to find a different proposal project each semester. “I’m always open to ideas from people. It’s not always easy to find exactly the right project.” Past classes were asked to write proposals for a canister that maintains a consistent temperature while transporting biological specimens, and a system for doing grocery shopping from one’s home.
Ideas come from the university as well as the private sector, says Malkus. “Industry believes this a worthwhile exercise because it gives students a sense of how closely they’ll be held to some kind of standard or measure.”
For the most part, students from this group enjoyed the proposal subject, which is not always the case, says Malkus. “Students like to be able to visualize the whole thing relatively quickly. I think this semester they felt they had a good grasp of what the problem was.”
Malkus welcomes suggestions for any future projects. She can be reached at 608/265-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.