Multidisciplinary approach brings benefits

Apr 29, 2004

An initiative by three Kettering female faculty members provides a real-world multidisciplinary approach to problem solving for students majoring in Electrical, Industrial and Mechanical Engineering. The interdisciplinary processes and programs of this initiative will create a well-rounded graduate and help build community between female faculty members at the University.

As an academic and professional field, engineering is challenging. Some might characterize their experience majoring in engineering during college as daunting and exhaustive, while others might use terms that are best left unpublished. But engineering is also a field that can offer a great amount of career satisfaction to individuals who truly wish to engineer a better life through the creation of products that help the general public.

But the number of students, especially females, enrolling in an engineering-related degree program is dwindling, studies show. Additionally, the number of women faculty members who teach engineering in the academic industry is shrinking. This is why Kettering's Terri Lynch-Caris, assistant professor of Industrial Engineering (IE), Karen Palmer, associate professor of Electrical Engineering (EE) and Laura Sullivan, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering (ME), recently engaged in a project titled "An Experiment In Interdisciplinary Collaboration" that

    • explored a multidisciplinary thesis experience;
    • analyzed courses and curriculum for team opportunities for students from different disciplines to work together;
    • examined lab innovations to allow students to experience how principles of one discipline affect another; and
    • reviewed undergraduate research opportunities.

This initiative was designed to develop collaborations between students in different but related majors to benefit student learning and curriculum integration, and establish support systems between junior and senior female faculty members.

The idea for this effort developed in August 2003. The three faculty members decided to create projects for Lynch-Caris' Industrial Engineering Capstone Design course for the Winter 2004 term that would require students to connect with others working in different engineering disciplines. During their initial talks, they realized that this collaborative exercise could also help establish a mentoring opportunity between senior (Sullivan and Palmer) and junior faculty members (Lynch-Caris).

"This is good for the retention of women faculty," Sullivan explained, noting that the mentorship aspect evolved naturally.

Following their initial discussions, the three applied for and received a $1,500 travel grant from Kettering's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) to attend the 2003 Frontiers in Education conference in Bolder, Colo., in November. The three of them decided to stay together at the same hotel, discussed each session they attended and committed to the project before returning home.

After their return, they decided to try their idea out on Lynch-Caris' capstone design course. Students received choices for projects that required integration between IE, ME and EE Students. Professors of EE and ME served as consultants and/or resources of information within their respective fields for this initiative. Students were also responsible for adding resources to the IE library that prove useful in the capstone experience now and in the future. For the Winter 2004 term, the following projects were available to students.

Project 1 - Physical Accommodations for the Worker with Disabilities

Perform a thorough literature search of all assistive devices and gadgets currently used in manufacturing and service industries to enable handicapped individuals to perform routine jobs. The list should include industries that specialize in making such gadgets as well as industries that use various types of gadgets. The reference section should allow easy access to all books that could not be easily obtained. Students must submit public papers and company literature to the instructor with the executive summary attached.

Design an assistive device to reduce the effects of uncontrollable hand tremors on input devices. Students will design the device taking into account anthropometry of the subject, materials used in the product, damping characteristics and electrical signal pulse. They may begin by monitoring the electrical impulses and their frequency within the hand during a tremor using a signal device created by an EE consultant. They may further request ME assistance for ideas to dampen the noise created by a tremor as well as materials selection as it relates to damping. They will then draw upon IE skills in anthropometry. Finally, product design will undergo testing for valid function.

Project 2 - Work Design - Process

Act as a consultant/mentor to the current IME361 Methods & Standards Class. Students enrolled in this class must optimize the design of a padlock created from Lego building blocks. Capstone students will serve as advisors for the current students, answering any questions and relating personal experiences.

Capstone students will assist in developing the plans to move the laboratory space from the second floor to the lower level. They will gather input from other IME students for needs and desires in the new lecture/lab/computer space and make recommendations on what to include in the new area. Some considerations for this space include flow, workspace, scheduling, storage and aesthetics. This group will also set up the organization and structure for the John Mariotti Library. This library plan may be included in the overall plan for moving to the lower level.

Project 3 - Work Design - Product

Capstone students will design a new product for use in the next offering of the course, thus replacing the padlocks that have been used for several semesters. The new design must have at least two different options and approximately the same number of parts and level of complexity as the current locks. The new design must have some mechanical mechanism similar to the movement of the locks. One additional requirement is the use of a torque-inducing hand tool to either put together or take apart some Lego pieces. Precedent and fabrication charts must be created as well as a bill of material for the new product.

Project 4 - Statistics and Survey Design

Design a survey or series of surveys for the purpose of creating a portfolio of interdisciplinary projects and interested participants. The project may be of service to the community, beneficial to a student group, part of a class or integrated into the curriculum. Survey participants may be chosen from students, faculty, and corporate sponsors or another identified group. As part of the survey development, IME capstone students will interview ME, EE and other students for the purpose of capturing the "right" data. In addition, IME, ME, EE and other Kettering students and faculty are asked to complete the survey to determine wants, needs and perceptions. A carefully designed experiment including adequate sample size is important for significant results.

Results and analysis of the survey will drive recommendations and initial implementations. Implementation of at least one idea is expected.

Following the completion of these projects, students completed a survey that asked them to rank collaboration options ranging from working alone to working on collaborative teams comprised of professionals from different fields. According to Sullivan, Palmer and Lynch-Caris, the responses were not surprising. "Most students ranked the opportunity to collaborate with others from different fields as very high," Lynch-Caris said.

Palmer agreed. "The primary benefit is that students receive an education that prepares them for an interdisciplinary career," she explained. A second benefit to this initiative is the collaboration developed between faculty of various levels at the institution, specifically female faculty. Sullivan noted that "a female assistant professor such as Terri (Lynch-Caris) is more likely to find support through a mentor relationship with tenured faculty members such as Karen (Palmer) and me in fields where few women work."

All three suggested that perhaps one of the most promising benefits of this initiative is the value it has to society. An engineer who has the ability to collaborate with others in different but related fields will help in the creation of products attuned to the needs of all consumers.

The researchers are currently preparing a paper on this work for submission to the 2004 Frontiers in Education Conference scheduled for this fall. To learn more about this project, contact Dr. Laura Sullivan at (810) 762-9838, or via e-mail at

Written by Gary Erwin
(810) 762-9538