Tech Tour Day Nine: MSU’s STEM Pipeline Growing

Imen Zaabar at Michigan State shows ESD's Matt Roush how to build a road.

EAST LANSING — Okay, so the Michigan State University Spartan defense couldn’t stop the Buckeyes Saturday night.

But boy, the MSU College of Engineering stopped me in my tracks Friday, the ninth and final day of the Engineering Society of Detroit Fall Tech Tour.

The college has exploded from 3,000 to 5,000 students just over the past five years, with more growth on the way — a 130,000-square-foot Bio Engineering Facility will add brand-new biotech labs to campus next year.

But MSU hasn’t forgotten where that success comes from — students. The school has an extensive STEM outreach program that reaches down to elementary school, and takes huge steps to make sure the students it gets to campus stay in school and graduate within hailing distance of on time.

The program for freshmen is called CoRe Experience. Its director, S. Patrick Walton, an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, says the idea is “to make first year engineering students second year engineering students, and ultimately
graduates.”

The vast majority of incoming MSU engineering students — this year, about 1,500 — live in the MSU campus’ South Neighborhood, a cluster of four dorms, with most of them in Wilson Hall. There, they get tailored tutoring, advising and more, designed to support success in engineering.

MSU has also changed its engineering curriculum so that first- and second-year students aren’t just grinding away at math and physics. Instead, they get an introduction to engineering design course and an engineering modeling course that “give first year students a chance to see engineering from their first day on campus,” according to CoRe acadmic director Tim Hinds. The courses teach using math to solve problems, communication skills, teamwork skills and professionalism.

The challenge of that curriculum was finding hands-on engineering products that could be scaled to more than 1,000 incoming students.

“We will give 1,700 students this year hands-on team based design projects with physical products at the end, often times driven by clients that we have brought in from partner organizations … and corporate partners to get students interacting with employers early,” Walton said. “We want to get those students involved with real engineering design work from the moment they set foot on campus.”

Added Hinds: “We don’t want to weed students out, we want to retain. We put so much time and effort into recruiting these students, we identified pretty much all of them as being at the top of their high schools — we want to give them the tools for success.”

Planning for CoRe started in 2006. The academic side of the exercise was piloted in 2007 and went large-scale in 2008. The residential piece kicked in in 2009.

As for what the atmosphere is like, Hinds said: “We are aiming at a small school within a large school. You will get the attention and opportunity of a smaller school with all the opportunities of a larger school.”

And the program is demonstrably working. CoRe has increased fifth-semester retention by about 7 percentage points, boosting it from 55 percent to 62 percent.

“That’s 70 or 80 more students graduating each year than otherwise would have,” Walton said.

Michigan State has secondary admission to its engineering college — you get admitted to MSU overall as an incoming student, but you must perform at a set level in six key courses before you’re admitted to the college of engineering. Of those who get that admission, Walton said, 85 percent graduate — so the key is getting the students from freshmen to admitted to the college of engineering. (Oh, and of those graduates, 96 percent are placed within six months, either to a job or grad school. Not too shabby.)

MSU has also added a special course in three-dimensional visualization for students who have a problem with it — since research shows that any STEM major is much more likely to graduate if they have good 3-D visualization skills. “We know it is a skill that can be taught,” Walton said. (See engageengineering.org for more.)

My next visit was in Wilson Hall with Ken Szymusiak, managing director for the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the MSU Eli Broad College of Business, who showed me The Hive, a former computer lab and convenience store in Wilson that was transformed over the summer into a 4,600-square-foot incubator space in a $2 million project.

Szymusiak said The Hive is intended as an expansion of The Hatch, an MSU student business incubator on the north side of Grand River Avenue in downtown East Lansing. “What we noticed with The Hatch was that it was used by juniors and seniors most frequently,” he said. The idea here is to set up something for younger students: “an idea laboratory, a pre-incubator on campus that allows easy access for freshmen and sophomores, reaching out to the students where they live, earlier in the process.”

Besides the engineering college, the project is supported by MSU’s Broad College of Business, the communication arts department, residential and hospitality services, and the MSU Innovation Center. “It’s pretty rare within the university setting to see that many partners within one space,” Szymusiak said.

The Hive is home to a one-credit course, Introduction to Business Model Creation, an elective available to all students. Its 35 attendees get access to the Hive from 7 a.m. to midnight.

“They form into teams, determine a problem they would like to solve, and develop a business idea, with a value proposition, customer development, and study of the channels, how the product will be delivered,” he said.

MSU is also launching a entrepreneurship minor in the 2015-16 year that will be available to all students, with two core classes from business and communication arts and three electives.

Next, I moved across campus to the MSU Engineering Building’s Diversity Programs Office and a meeting with Koreco Wilkins-Webster, senior in mechanical engineering from Detroit. Wilkins-Webster came to MSU from Detroit Central High School through
the Engineering Summer Science Academy. ESSA is a six-week residential program in math, science and writing. “It allowed me to build a support system with professors and advisers here before I even came on campus, and built me a support system of people I still talk to and have classes with to this day,” he said.

The diversity office also set up Wilkins-Webster with a tutor, which he said really helped with a dynamics class. “When they explain it in class it seems so simple, but trying to do it on my own it is never the same,” he said.

Now, Wilkins-Webster is an ESSA tutor, working with high school students. He’s also a mentor in an MSU program called Leaders Encouraging Academic Development that has juniors and seniors mentoring freshmen and sophomores. And he’s looking at an
internship next summer at a Nestle plant and research center in Arkansas.

Theo Caldwell, who directs the diversity office, is a 1996 MSU graduate who worked in industry for 10 years before coming back to East Lansing as academic coordinator for the office. He said the major metric for the office is retention — especially “students who are academically underprepared when they arrive here, in mathematics or science, or who are historically underrepresented in the university.”

A key predictor of who will succeed in engineering is what level of mathematics they come to MSU with. Getting students from basic math to advanced calculus is crucial, he said.

And what else do they need? “We try to meet the student where they are and meet their needs,” Caldwell said. “For some students it’s academic coaching or professional preparation. Counseling, tutoring, advising. For some students it’s food or a coat or a hug or tying a bow tie. It depends on the day and the student. If we can’t provide the support they need we will try to connect them with someplace on campus that can.”

The office partners with the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program and hosts its students in campus visits, and has similar partnerships with Cass Tech, Renaissance and Martin Luther King high schools in Detroit. A new $5 million Dow Foundation grant will
help in this and other efforts, Caldwell said. But he knows the bottom line: “We’re not producing enough STEM professionals in this state and this country.”

Next? I walked for what seemed like half an hour through the gigantic MSU building to the pavement laboratory of Imen Zaabar, assistant professor of civil engineering — and she had me make a road. Well, at least a six-inch-by-six-inch section of one. This project is very popular with elementary and middle school groups, Zaabar said. You take a base of sand, wet it down and compact it, add clay and limestone gravel, and top it with a thin rubberized asphalt layer that has a sensor stuck to it. Then Zaabar dropped a weight on
the road and measured how much “deflection” was in the mess I made — in other words, how well the road would hold up under vehicle loads. Zaabar told me I was at least somewhat competitive with the 10-year-olds they have come in and try it, but I think she may have just been taking pity on me.

Then, it was a quick interview with Zaabar and Karim Chatti, professor of civil engineering, about MSU’s leadership of the University Transportation Center for Highway Pavement Preservation, a program funded by the federal stimulus (hey, remember that?). The effort runs through 2017 and provided about $4.2 million to MSU for research into what makes a road last — or go bad. The center is supporting 13 research projects studying materials, management, monitoring, sustainability and more. The emphasis now is on embedding sensors in the road, both physical and chemical, to detect breakdowns in a road before that crater-like pothole appears — fixing it earlier means saving money, not to mention automotive suspensions.

There’s also an education and work force development component, reaching out to K-12 schools about careers in civil engineering — of which the road-building exercise I took part in is a part.

More at http://www.chpp.egr.msu.edu/. And you can see what I did at http://www.chpp.egr.msu.edu/?p=413.

Next, I had a terrific lunch with MSU’s Rhodes Scholar finalist, David Zoltowski, an electrical engineering major from West Lafayette, Ind., where his father is a professor at Purdue University. (So why MSU? MSU wanted Zoltowski on the swim team and Purdue didn’t, and they’re both fine engineering schools. A triplet, Zoltowski wants to become a college professor and focus his research in electrical engineering on the brain and autism — since his triplet brother is autistic. And boy, that Rhodes scholarship to Oxford sure would help, so let’s wish him luck. Zoltowski is also outreach coordinator for the MSU Student Athletes Advisory Committee, where he sets up events in the Lansing area for children to interact with MSU student-athletes.

Next, it was one of my all-time favorite Tech Tour interviews — Dr. Richard Lunt, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science. Lunt , who joined MSU in 2011 after a post-doctoral year at MIT, is building the future of solar energy — and you can see through it.

Lunt and his team of nanostructured materials tinkerers have come up with solar cells made of a molecule called phthalocyanine — historically used in car paint and to stain your blue jeans blue — and mixed it was a type of carbon called a buckyball, commonly found in soot, “and if you blend them in just the right way, it makes a very inexpensive solar cell that is about 10 percent efficient.”

And more importantly, YOU CAN SEE RIGHT THROUGH IT.

So imagine. A building generating electricity, not with ugly boxes of solar panels or marginally less ugly solar shingles — but WITH THE WINDOWS.

“These cells harvest the kinds of light we can’t see — near-infrared and ultraviolet — to make electricity,” Lunt said.

Lunt has established a startup company called Ubiquitous Energy Inc. to work on these technologies, and their scale-up and commercialization.

Waxing a bit poetic, Lunt noted that “these materials are hiding all around us — there is inspiration all around us.” A recent Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of the properties of graphene — which is just a combination of graphite (like in your pencil) and Scotch tape, he said — you use adhesives to peel off very thin layers of graphite, and the stuff has amazing properties. He said making cheap solar power out of blue jean dye and soot — oh, all right, mixed very carefully and super-purified — is rather in the same ballpark.

My final visit of the Tech Tour was with the ever-affable Dr. Leo Kempel, dean of the MSU College of Engineering. He apologized for being a bit loopy after starting the day at a meeting in Ohio and not getting much sleep. Well, that was two of us — I was loopy after nine
days on the road and the prospect of my own bed. (And neither one of us was as loopy as the MSU defense later proved to be against the Buckeyes, but let’s not go there.)

Kempel said the MSU engineering program is going to continue its growth — 2 to 6 percent more students are expected next year.

And he said MSU will continue its STEM outreach, among other things sponsoring upwards of 30 Vex Robotics teams across the state and running the ESSA program.

Diversity remains a core issue. The MSU engineering college is currently at 17 percent women, and the goal is 25. This year’s incoming freshman class? A little better at 19 percent female. But in an era when the American engineering and scientific enterprise requires all hands on deck, Kempel knows that’s not good enough.

Kempel’s very excited about the new Bio Engineering Facility. He said the $61 million building was put on the south side of campus for a reason — that’s where the College of Nursing, the College of Human Medicine, Ostepathic Medicine, and MSU’s veterinary
medicine are, and he wants serious collaboration between engineering and the medical education efforts. MSU is now starting a search for an inaugural chair in its newly approved Department of Biomedical Engineering, and will be hiring between 12 and 20
new faculty for it as well. MSU will start with a master’s degree and Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering and eventually add a bachelor’s degree program.

“There’s a tremendous demand for professionals in this field,” he said, also noting that “biological engineering is one of those fields that tends to attract more women.”

Right now, Kempel said, mechanical engineering is the hottest major — traditionally at 25 percent of enrollment, it’s up to 29 at present — with computer science in second spot.

And with that, my day at MSU — and my Tech Tour — ended. I want to thank all of the university public relations people who put my tour itinerary together, and all of the busy researchers, faculty members and students who took time out of their schedules to talk to me about their part in Michigan’s future in STEM.

What have I learned? Well, mostly that Michigan’s higher education community really is hard at work trying to meet employer demand for STEM graduates, and that virtually all of the schools involved are on the grow.

And I learned that these schools now recognize that we have to begin talking to kids earlier and earlier to get them to consider a STEM career. We have to erase that perception that engineering and science are too hard to be fun. Like anything else worthwhile in life, of course, they’re both. It’s hard to learn to play the guitar, too, but that doesn’t stop millions of kids from starting garage bands. It’s hard to learn to play a sport, too, but have you seen our parks, full of millions of young athletes, each convinced they’re the next Calvin Johnson?

As they say in FIRST Robotics, and I’ve said earlier in these reports, the cool thing about STEM is that ALL of its students can go pro. Let’s make more of them, shall we? Let’s get to work.

 

View upon arrival at Michigan State Friday. Alas, there will be no repeat.
View upon arrival at Michigan State Friday. Alas, there will be no repeat.
S. Patrick Walton, director of MSU's CoRe program for freshman engineering students (left) with CoRe academic director Tim Hinds in MSU's Wilson Hall.
S. Patrick Walton, director of MSU’s CoRe program for freshman engineering students (left) with CoRe academic director Tim Hinds in MSU’s Wilson Hall.
A CoRe computer lab at MSU's Wilson Hall.
A CoRe computer lab at MSU’s Wilson Hall.
A large lecture hall at MSU's Wilson Hall. Yup, the classrooms are in the dorm complex. Come in your slippers, even in winter.
A large lecture hall at MSU’s Wilson Hall. Yup, the classrooms are in the dorm complex. Come in your slippers, even in winter.
There's even a machine shop and wood shop in Wilson Hall.
There’s even a machine shop and wood shop in Wilson Hall.
Ken Szymusiak, managing director for the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the MSU Eli Broad College of Business, at The Hive in Wilson Hall -- a former computer lab and convenience store remodeled into a student business incubator space.
Ken Szymusiak, managing director for the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the MSU Eli Broad College of Business, at The Hive in Wilson Hall — a former computer lab and convenience store remodeled into a student business incubator space.
The Hive, continued.
The Hive, continued.
More of The Hive.
More of The Hive.
Imen Zaabar, assistant professor of civil engineering at MSU, just before she showed me how to build a road.
Imen Zaabar, assistant professor of civil engineering at MSU, just before she showed me how to build a road.
Dr. Richard R. Lunt, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, in the lab where he makes a novel kind of see-through solar panel.
Dr. Richard R. Lunt, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, in the lab where he makes a novel kind of see-through solar panel.

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Here are some of the ultra-pure molecules Dr. Lunt uses in his solar panels.
Here are some of the ultra-pure molecules Dr. Lunt uses in his solar panels.

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