David Sheffler (MAE, ’87) maintains that there is nothing wrong with traditional textbook-driven learning — and he should know. A 20-year veteran of the aerospace industry, Sheffler depends on his knowledge of fundamental engineering principles every day. At the same time, he understands that hands-on learning is important, too. “Design is what gives students a chance to apply those principles.” When Sheffler returned from the aerospace private sector to the department to teach courses on jet engines, he decided to build the course content around design. “Solving real-world problems with real objects and real constraints gives students an appreciation for how engineering is really practiced,” he says. His students have built an impressive working replica of the Rolls-Royce AE3007 turbofan jet engine using a 3-D printer in the department’s state of the art Rapid-Prototyping Laboratory. Rather than using jet fuel, the engine is powered by compressed air. The alternate fuel source required the students to design a manifold to properly supply and distribute the air to the turbine applying the actual stress and vibratory constraints used in designing real engines.
These students’ experience is not unusual. Opportunities to take on a design challenge abound in the department — and in most cases they are directly related to a faculty member’s research. With a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative award from the Department of Defense, Associate Professor Hilary Bart-Smith is investigating the fundamental issues needed to develop undersea vessels that move with the effortless agility and precision of manta rays. Along with Professor Hossein Haj-Hariri, a co-investigator on the project, she supervised a year-long senior engineering class that built a manta ray robot based on her findings. Other design opportunities are found with Professor James McDaniel, who has organized his aircraft design classes around NASA’s annual design competition for college students. His classes have placed either first, second or third every year but one — for 18 years — and have continued to outperform schools with larger aerospace departments, like Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. This year, the students took first place for their design of an environmentally friendly airplane that could be produced by 2020. “One of the things that students learn over the course of the year is that there are no correct answers in design,” McDaniel says. “Rather, there are compromises made as engineers strive to produce an optimal final product.”