Opportunities for Undergrads Interested in Research

Here in the Mechanical Engineering department at CU, there are many opportunities for undergraduate students to get research experience. Pretty much all of us professors have active research programs, and most of us welcome undergraduates to participate. If my projects don’t fit with your interests, don’t stop looking. On the department website you can find short descriptions of what each prof is interested in. They might also have an informative website, but don’t count on it. The best way to find out what a prof is doing is to ask them; make an appointment, say that you are interested in their work.

If you say you want to work with me, I try to find out what kind of experience you want so I can suggest projects to match. Some projects are hands-on design/build/test of a piece of laboratory apparatus for my fluids research or for the Flow Vis course. Some projects involve a bit of Matlab programming and/or data analysis from my research. A project might  be a literature survey on a topic of mutual interest, or might be interviewing other students and analyzing the results. Most projects are related to ongoing research, so you might be helping and be supervised by one of my graduate students. I’m also open to fluids-related ideas that you are passionate about. Whatever it is, I want a good match so you’ll be enthusiastic, self-motivated and dedicated.

Other things I look for in a research student:

  • Being a junior or a senior. This means that you have enough background in your discipline (whether it’s Mech Engin, some other engineering, filmmaking or whatever) to get started quickly. This is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule.
  • Having a partner or two lined up, with schedules similar enough that you can spend around 10 hours together per week, plus a short group meeting with me every week.
  • Being able to make a commitment to a total of 150 hours in a semester. Sometimes this can be spread out over more than a semester, and include part or all of summer. This means having a reasonable course load, and not a lot of other projects.
  • Production of a good final report. It will be due two weeks before the end of classes, so I have time to edit it and you have time for revisions.
  • I much prefer to work with CU students, with the hope that after I invest my time in you and get you trained up to be productive that you will want to stay on and work with me for more than one semester.

In return, you’ll get a taste of real research, including an experienced mentor (I’ve had over 150 undergrad researchers in my program), a great letter of reference for job applications, and maybe a research publication or two to put on your resume. You can also get either

  • 3 credit hours of Independent Study which will count as a technical elective in Mechanical Engineering. If this is in your plan, you’ll need to fill out the application form, get my signature, and get it to one of the ME undergrad advisors in time to register. Yes, it has to be typed, and we have to agree on the scope and methods.
  • OR
  • a bit of money. This is harder to set up, but I’ve been fairly successful helping CU students get funding from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) here at CU (but watch out, the deadlines are waaaaay in advance). Depending on the project, there might be other pots of money around for funding.

I usually have 3 to 6 undergrads working with me at any given time. I’ll be posting about specific projects in the future, so if you are interested, check back here now and then.

Projects in Fluids Courses Made Easy (for You, the Instructor)

I’m giving a talk at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics annual meeting in Seattle, November 23-26, 2019. This talk will be in Session H29, one of the Fluids Education sessions, on Monday 11/25 at 9:44 AM–9:57 AM, in room 611 at the Seattle Convention Center. Here are the slides from the talk, the project assignment that is given to students, including a list of projects to choose from (thanks to Peter Mitrano) and the all-important rubric, thanks to Derek Reamon.

The Best Part of Teaching

I was invited to sit on a panel of engineering faculty today, to talk to a class of first year students. We all introduced ourselves, and then we were asked to talk about what gets us going. When you are sitting on a panel, there’s always a moment of panic when you cast about in your mind, looking for something to say that is unique, useful and true. Ah, here we go.

For me, the best part of teaching is learning.

I collect skills. I love learning how to do new things. I’m old enough to have collected a wide range of skills: photography, gardening, coding,  firefighting, folk dancing, (here’s where I stopped speaking, but it’s fun to list them all) data analysis, wiring,  public speaking, kitchen knife skills, electronics assembly, automotive repair, reference chasing, laundry, drumming in odd rhythms, laser repair, WordPress, sewing, teaching, making mustard, plumbing and flow visualization. I’ve never regretted spending the time to learn any of these. I don’t claim expertise in very much, but I can do a lot of different things with basic competence. OK, I can’t really sing, or remember names or faces. But my most important skill that I truly delight in might be how to learn new things.

So now when I teach, that’s what I want to teach: I want my students to learn how to collect a new skill, how to teach themselves, so they can have the pleasure of conquering useful new knowledge, of doing new things.

I’m glad I sat on that panel today. I learned something new about myself.

The Aesthetics of Design(ing an new course)

This semester I am teaching a new course, the Aesthetics of Design. It is a mashup of industrial design, studio art and engineering projects courses. Grad and undergrad students from our Mechanical Engineering program, plus students from TAM and other programs will design and build artifacts with an aesthetic component, possibly useless things for art’s sake. Not your typical functional time-and-money oriented engineering project course, and not a traditional ‘industrial design’ product-oriented course either.

Continue reading The Aesthetics of Design(ing an new course)

Collected Fluid Artists

I’ve been collecting examples of work from fine artists who use fluid mechanics as a significant part of their media. Currently this collection is posted on as Flow Visualization on Scoop.it, but perhaps I will transition the collection to be part of my blog here. Meanwhile, here is a recent example:

Suggestions for artists to add are welcome.

Am I Back? Oh Yes!

Office Hours Fall 2015

Pretty much everybody I run into asks me “so, are you back yet?” meaning am I back to teaching. Based on prior experience, I expect them to continue asking this question in some form for the next seven years. I think it reflects a wistfulness on their part; they wish they were on sabbatical too, whether they are academics or not. Knowing how irritating this question gets over time, when I run into a colleague I haven’t seen in a while I ask instead “you’re not on sabbatical now, are you?”, as if that phrasing is really any different. I’m eternally wistful too.

This semester I’m teaching two courses, undergraduate Fluids and my favorite, Flow Visualization. Both are MWF, so it feels like I’m always preparing for one or the other, even though I’ve taught both courses 10 times. Fluids has 85 students in it, but really I have 170 students, because I’ve joined forces with Peter Mitrano (a Flow Vis alum) who is teaching the other section. We are sharing homeworks and exams, so it’s like teaching a big course with a co-instructor, although we have separate lectures. Flow Vis has 45 students or so, as usual. This means I have contact with over 200 students, who all would like me to know their names. Oy.

I’ve tried to block out Thursday as my day for uninterrupted work, since all of my PhD students are hoping to graduate this term. I thought there were 3, but I just heard from an ABD (all but dissertation) student from a few years ago who now wants to finish. That is one big pile of theses.

Wish me luck.

PS, I’ve changed the hosting of this blog from WordPress to Dreamhost, so please resubscribe if you want to stay connected.

Across the World and Back

It feels like both no time and forever. I’ve been traveling almost nonstop for four months, and now I’m finally home. It was amazing, exciting, fun, sometimes uncomfortable, endlessly fascinating, useful, productive and indulgent. I don’t want to go anywhere for a long time and yet I would go again in a heartbeat.

Most of it was cities. Not my first choice for travel destinations; I’d prefer villages and mountains, but this was mostly a work trip, so cities it was.

Short trips to Chicago, Berkeley, then overseas to Athens, Volos, Thessaloniki, Plovdiv, Varna, Bucharest, Stockholm, Skovde, Linkoping/Norkoping, Lund, Bremen, Leiden, Munster, Freiburg,  Milan, Moneglia, Florence, Prato, Heraklion, back Athens, then home briefly. Then Seattle, Berkeley, and a final leisurely drive to Mendocino and back for Balkan camp. I gave my cardiac seminar seven times formally, and three times informally. My ‘Aesthetics in Flow Vis’ I gave five times.

I am so grateful to all my hosts, most of whom I had never met in person before. I got such valuable feedback on our work. I was able to learn so much about the stellar work all these new colleagues are doing. I was able to visit their workspaces, meet all their students and postdocs, and see such a range of ways of approaching this research/teaching enterprise we are all engaged in. This kind of visit was so value-added compared to presenting at a conference that I plan many more in the future.

One of my preconceptions that was blown was the way that low university tuitions are managed in Europe. Each program has thousands of qualified students in the first year. They really do have ‘weed-out’ courses, and they accept the impact this has on their demographics (in terms underrepresented minorities) as a given. At the same time the faculty are just as committed (or not) to excellence in teaching as we are here at home.

I visited both thriving and struggling research groups. One common refrain was that there are very limited opportunities for mid-career researchers, so many of them seek (and find, oddly enough) opportunities abroad. This churn may provide good cross-fertilization of research, but it takes quite a toll on the families involved.

So now I’m home. My up-close view of the grass on the other side of the fence revealed that it is green, but no greener than here. My to-do list is even longer than when I started. It turned out that manipulating a cursor on a laptop screen is tough on any train. I still have a lot of processing to do on what I learned, as well as thank-yous to write and connections to follow up on. My students were all productive while I was gone, so I have a lot of their work to review. I’m not complaining! Onward!

Working the travel mix

For most of my career, I’ve separated travel for work from travel for leisure/pleasure. Maybe it was emotional laziness: it’s hard to switch gears, and leisure time seemed soooo precious that I didn’t want to contaminate it. And now that I’m halfway through our two-month European loop, yes, it’s hard, but it’s led to all sorts of authentic experiences we would not have had any other way. I’m loving it.

In the past, work travel meant somewhat stressful conferences, punctuated by brief exchanges with colleagues in cities that were often charm-challenged. If held in beautiful locations, nobody wanted to actually attend the sessions. I’d rather just go somewhere nice and enjoy it.

This trip is different. We are visiting people where they live. We get into town on the train, figure out public transport to get to our AirBnB or hotel, meet whoever is renting the space to us, and get recommendations for neighborhood eateries and shops. The next day I go to my host colleague’s office, see their work space, meet their students, maybe give a seminar. I get to really learn about what they are doing, their philosophies and approaches. I get very constructive feedback on my work. So much more valuable than what happens at a conference!

After, we spend another night or two or six in the area. We’ve done some touristy stuff, but not a lot. Our places usually have kitchens, so we’ll go to the grocery store and try to figure out what to get. Yay for the Google Translate app! Sometimes we get to meet up with Boulder or Balkan camp connections in these towns, and my colleague Einar Heiberg generously invited us to a dinner party at his home in Lund.

The hard part has been deciding what to do with unscheduled time: work vs exercise vs explore vs curate gigs of photos. Take the opportunity to sample a local European delight or finish that conference paper? Hmm. Go to the beach at Den Haag, or finish this post? In this case, I went to the beach. It was freezing, with quivering foam. Call it flow vis.

I’m so grateful for the privilege to have these choices!

Aesthetics and Emotional Engagement: Why it Matters to Our Students, Why it Matters to Our Professions

Kate Goodman and I have proposed a special session for the 2015 Frontiers in Education conference. Our goals are

  • To foster conversation and document ideas about how the aesthetic qualities of engineering topics can be used to deliberately draw the emotional engagement of students.
  • To gauge how the FIE community currently views the aesthetics of engineering, and brainstorm new visions for how aesthetics could be used to improve recruitment and retention of a diverse student population as well as lead to innovative methods for the teaching and learning of core engineering content.
  • To explore the feasibility of viewing aesthetics-driven emotional engagement as a necessity and not an ancillary benefit in course design.

Really, we want to move forward on creating community around this idea. Noah Finkelstein and I did a version of this workshop at the Physics Education Research Conference 2013,  and Kate and I did it in February at the CU Boulder DBER meeting. We’ve had great conversations so far, and FIE seems like the perfect next venue. Here is our proposal for the session, complete with details.

We are hoping that participants will be interested enough to check out this little background paper, or at least use it to decide whether to attend. Comments welcome!