Tech Tour Day Five: CMU, Saginaw Valley Shine In STEM

MT. PLEASANT — Mid-Michigan is lucky.

And not just because they’re two hours closer to Up North than us
metro Detroiters. Nope, they’re also lucky because they have two
terrific institutions of higher learning, Central Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University, which were Monday’s tour stops on Day Five of ESD’s Fall Tech Tour.

My day began bright and early at CMU, where Lisa Ann Keith,
assistant director of public relations, set me up with people who were incredibly enthusiastic about both the university’s growth in
engineering and its commitment to STEM outreach to youth.

First up was Benjamin Ritter, instructor in the CMU School of Engineering and Technology, who makes sure his manufacturing technology students learn the basics first — running manual milling and drilling equipment, and learning how to do manual programming on the computer-controlled stuff.

The program’s graduates, Ritter said, “come out with good skills for
dealing with the skilled trade people because they understand the job, and they work with engineers so they understand when and what to ask an engineer for information.”

Ritter is also an adviser to CMU’s SAE Baja racing team, Team
Chippewa Performance, which ranked higher than every other
Michigan university at the recent Louisville SAE Midnight Mayhem
invitational in Bedford, Ky. In fact, the team placed second in the
country, bested only by the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Ritter earned an undergraduate degree in agriculture from Michigan
State University and came to CMU in 1999 to get a master’s degree in industrial management. He later worked for Dow Corning and returned to CMU for a Ph.D. in educational leadership.

He said 100 to 150 new students a year come through his programs.

“Manufacturing is not dead in this state,” he said. “It’s moved around
and the focus has changed, but there is a great demand for
technological skill, and Michigan really excels at that. Someone who
can navigate management, engineering, manufacturing and labor,
there’s a real need for that. Those aren’t covered in an engineering
program. They aren’t covered in a business program. That’s us.
We’re in between.”

Next, down the hall, I checked in with Tolga Kaya, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, who came to CMU four years ago after a stint as a post-doctoral researcher at Yale.

Long fascinated by tiny circuits, technology you can’t see with the
naked eye and microscopic moving parts, today, Kaya’s area of
research interest is a bit unusual: He wants to know what’s in your
sweat. And he wants you to know it too.

“I know, it sounds stinky,” he said. “But we are collecting sweat and
analyzing sweat and determining your physiological condition from
your sweat.”

Working partially in a clean room, Kaya and his students are building a sweat sensor that will fit into a wrist band. Based on the levels of
sodium and potassium in the sweat, Kaya will be able to tell if you’re
dehydrated. Based on the level of lactate, he can tell if you’re tired.
And if you’re sweating profusely but not breathing hard, it means
you’re under stress or anxiety.

There’s a pre-beta version of the sweat sensor that’s being
developed now, Kaya said, but he had no estimate just yet on when
his sweat analyzer might hit the military and exercise markets. The
sensor will be entered in CMU’s venture competition this spring.

Kaya is also heavily involved in CMU’s STEM outreach, working under a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to bring high school science teachers to campus every summer and do research with them. That research generates activities for high school students. Also, on Dec. 5, Kaya will be among the hosts for several hundred high school students who will visit CMU’s engineering building for experiments and demonstrations.

My next stop was the photonics lab of Adam Mock, assistant professor of electrical engineering. Mock is working on materials that absorb photons — the individual packets of energy that make up light.

Mock, who came to CMU in 2009 after getting his Ph.D. from the
University of Southern California, works on nanotech materials that are less expensive than current technologies — materials that scatter and trap photons, which can create an electrical current. Among other things, they can make solar panels more efficient and cheaper.

Also working in the lab Monday was Katherine Kolar, a sophomore
from Brighton who says she’s wanted to be an engineer for a long
time — she comes from a family of engineers, after all. She said part
of the reason she came to CMU was that it’s common for
undergraduates to get involved in advanced research like Mock’s.

Next door was the robotics lab of Shaopeng “Frank” Cheng, associate professor of industrial and mechanical engineering technology, where I met with a team of seven students working on a project for Dow Chemical Co. to automate a process that sounds like the world’s most boring job — using a syringe to manually fill small bottles with high-viscosity liquids. The students are in the process of designing a robot that will fill the containers four at a time, using part of the current manual equipment. The team’s mechanical engineers are working on the design, while the electrical
engineers are working on the motors and controllers. A mechanical
engineering technology major will make sure the system can be

Team members are mechanical engineering majors Tamika Taylor of
Chicago, Joseph Loomis of Petoskey and Jeremy VanderWall of
Muskegon; electrical engineering majors Blake Dylewicz of Hope,
Quinten Shields of Flint and Jonathan Gust of Hartland; and
mechanical engineering technology major Nicholas Ballinger of

My final visit at CMU was with Mohamad S. Qatu, director and
professor of the School of Engineering and Technology.

Qatu’s tenure has been marked by growth — from 270 students (150
in engineering technology and 120 in engineering) in the school when he arrived in 2011 to 500 (300 in engineering and 200 in engineering technology) today.

“There’s a very strong demand for engineering,” Qatu said in a
masterpiece of understatement. “We’ve been through a strategic
planning process and the university is giving us additional resources
to handle the growth.”

Qatu also noted that CMU’s engineering program has moved into the top 100 among universities that offer only bachelor’s and master’s degrees in recent rankings from U.S. News & World Report, and said outreach to K-12 school districts within a 50-mile radius of Mt. Pleasant will be a key to future growth.

CMU has established a master of science in engineering that will start in the fall of 2015, and is now in its third year of a computer
engineering program.

After saying my goodbyes to the Chippewas, I hopped on M-20 and headed east to Saginaw Valley State University, the 10,000-student school nestled in the farm fields of Saginaw County, which has a rapidly growing engineering program as well — and a massive STEM outreach vision.

Deborah R. Huntley, provost and vice president for academic affairs,
said the effort is to position Saginaw Valley “as the STEM education
hub for this region — linking K-12 education to employers. We want to make sure the pipeline is connected to the needs of employers.” The school is defining that region as Saginaw, Bay and Midland counties for most purposes.

The school is working with the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance’s
STEM Impact Initiative on this effort. She said it involves working with major employers like Dow Chemical, Dow Corning and Nexteer, a developer of power steering systems, to provide “problem-based experiential learning” in science and engineering to high school students.

Saginaw Valley has received more than $7.25 million in grants from
regional foundations — the Dow Chemical Foundation, the Dow
Corning Foundation and the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow
Foundation, among others — to support this effort.

Saginaw Valley has also established an early college program on its
campus, and 90 percent of its students are interested in STEM
careers. It’s a five-year high school that has students get a diploma —
plus more than 60 college credits that will transfer to most schools,
“although of course we hope they stay at Saginaw Valley,” Huntley

Other initiatives include the Saginaw Bay Environmental Science
Institute, which studies the Saginaw Bay watershed for cleaner water and better public policy, and the Dow Science and Sustainability Education Center, a $2 million grant-funded program that brings high school students and their teachers to Saginaw Valley in the summer for a seven-week research program. It involves the environmental science institute and other programs, including mechanical engineering.

The grant will also fund a mobile water science lab that will be sent to area high schools.

And the list goes on — a $250,000 two-year grant from the Dow
Corning Foundation for the SVSU Community STEM Partnership,
which works with middle and high school teachers to move STEM
education out of the classroom and into hands-on discovery and
exploration, and a $5 million grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A.
Dow Foundation for the STEM Scholars Network, which provides
summer STEM Opportunity Camps for academically challenged
middle school students, high school STEM camps, and funding for
undergraduate research.

“We had more than 60 students come last summer and spent a
month doing math and science,” Huntley said.

Saginaw Valley also has a grant from Consumers Energy that allows
high school students to take the university’s Engineering 101 course
“just to see if they like it,” Huntley said.

From there, it time for lunch at Saginaw Valley’s terrific student cafeteria — hundreds of choices, how those kids avoid the Freshman 15 I’ll never know — with J.J. Boehm, the university’s director of media and community relations. Then, a quick jaunt across Saginaw Valley’s quad — still pretty despite the season — to that aforementioned Saginaw Bay Environmental Science Institute and its director, David Karpovich, who grew up a farm boy in Michigan’s Thumb and is now dedicating his career to improving the water quality of Saginaw Bay.

The mission of the institute, Karpovich said, is to “assess the state of
the waters from the tributaries to Saginaw Bay. It’s all related to
Saginaw Bay as an area of concern for its health with the EPA.”

Among the institute’s projects is a study of different strains of E. coli
bacteria to determine whether the bacteria that can close beaches is
coming from sewer leakage, or farm runoff, or natural sources like
geese or deer. (That’s because different strains of E. coli prefer to
live in cattle, deer and humans, and you can test their DNA to
determine where they’re probably coming from.) Institute scientists
are also working on DNA fingerprinting of invasive species, including the dreaded phragmites, those big tall weeds with the tassels on top that block lakefront property owners’ views and change the conditions of marsh habitat.

The institute is unique in its focus on undergraduates and high school students — including 16 high school students employed there last summer with their teachers, thanks to funding from the Dow Chemical Foundation, the University of Michigan Water Center, the state Department of Environmental Quality, National Science Foundation, the Allen Foundation, and internal funds from the university.

The program employed 17 high school students — from Arthur Hill,
Bay City Western, Birch Run, Bullock Creek, Freeland, John Glenn
and Swan Valley high schools — nine Saginaw Valley students, eight
high school teachers and six Saginaw Valley faculty members. Their
projects included studies of walleye populations in Saginaw Bay, E.
coli in Saginaw Bay, crayfish habitat on small streams, muck removal
from beaches, and water quality.

“We had a seven to 10 week program depending on how each group
set its schedule, and the kids loved it,” Karpovich said. “We had a
poster session at the end, the kids were able to apply what they
learned, and all these kids left with ideas for science careers.”

Karpovich will also be in charge of the aforementioned mobile water
quality lab, which he hopes to take around to area schools, so that
“high school, middle school and grade school kids can see how lab
work is done and learn about water quality, wildlife habitat and invasive species. What I’d really like to see is schools come up with their own programs and then have this unit come around once a week or once a month with facilities they don’t have in their schools to run experiments — computers, high-powered microscopes, satellite internet, spectrometers.”

Karpovich also credited the Ann Arbor environmental firm LimnoTech, the Nature Conservancy’s Lansing office and the Michigan State University Institute of Water Research for helping with the institute’s work. A major project now under way is calculating the best places to establish land management practices like cover crops and buffer strips near watersheds to reduce soil and chemical runoff into the bay.

More about the institute at

My last visit of the day was with Stephanie A. Brouet, associate
professor of chemistry, who is running a Dow Corning Foundation-
funded program that offers high school science teachers $2,000 to
conduct a STEM project in their classrooms.

A major effort of the project is changing teacher and student attitudes about STEM careers — the idea that “science is hard,” in fact too hard for us mere mortals to master. Well, you don’t have to be Einstein to have a successful science career, Brouet pointed out. And, she added, learning to play a sport or a musical instrument is really hard too, yet people seem more willing to try that than to take up a science career that really benefits humanity.

The project begins with a two-week workshop setting the ground
rules for the project. Teachers are required to apply for the funding
the way they’d apply for a grant to conduct scientific research at the
collegiate level — citing solid science in the application and planning
the project in detail.

The program is now accepting applications for projects to take place
next summer. For more information, contact Brouet at

And so ended my day at these two fine schools in mid-Michigan. I
came away impressed with the efforts of both Central Michigan and
Saginaw Valley at filling that future science and engineering talent
pipeline. Now, if I can only get ’em to establish ESD student chapters!

Anyway, onward now to Big Rapids and Ferris State University,
founded as a trade school, and still with a hard-core hands-on
practical education mentality. And heavy on STEM. Sounds great!

David Karpovich, director of the Saginaw Bay Environmental Sciences Institute at Saginaw Valley State University and H.H Dow Endowed Chair of the Department of Chemistry
David Karpovich, director of the Saginaw Bay Environmental Sciences Institute at Saginaw Valley State University and H.H Dow Endowed Chair of the Department of Chemistry


This CMU team is developing a better bottle-filling robot for Dow Chemical Co. From left, Tamika Taylor of Chicago, Joseph Loomis of Petoskey, Blake Dylewicz of Hope, Quinten Shields of Flint, Jonathan Gast of Hartland, Jeremy VanderWall of Muskegon and Nicolas Ballinger of Jonesville
This CMU team is developing a better bottle-filling robot for Dow Chemical Co. From left, Tamika Taylor of Chicago, Joseph Loomis of Petoskey, Blake Dylewicz of Hope, Quinten Shields of Flint, Jonathan Gast of Hartland, Jeremy VanderWall of Muskegon and Nicolas Ballinger of Jonesville


And here's what the experiment looks like in the dark. Not too bad an image for not having a tripod and a four-second exposure!
And here’s what the experiment looks like in the dark. Not too bad an image for not having a tripod and a four-second exposure!
Katherine Kolar, a CMU sophomore from Brighton, with a polarized laser light experiment.
Katherine Kolar, a CMU sophomore from Brighton, with a polarized laser light experiment.
Kaya with an early prototype of the sweat sensor.
Kaya with an early prototype of the sweat sensor.


Tolga Kaya, assistant professor of electrical engineering, in the lab where he's developing a sensor to diagnose physical conditions from what's in perspiration. Well, OK, sweat.
Tolga Kaya, assistant professor of electrical engineering, in the lab where he’s developing a sensor to diagnose physical conditions from what’s in perspiration. Well, OK, sweat.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.