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Mechanical Engineering Major Preparing Students for Changing Field

September 27, 2006

MERCED - The University of California, Merced’s mechanical
engineering courses look familiar to anyone familiar with the
discipline: Fluid Mechanics, Heat Transfer, Numerical Methods. It’s
the way they’re taught here that makes UC Merced’s program special,
say the faculty members who have developed the program.

“We’ve brought the mechanical engineering curriculum up to
date,” said Professor Gerardo Diaz, who a year ago was the only
mechanical engineering faculty member on campus.

Diaz, previously an engineer at Honeywell International, was
joined this fall by Professor Carlos Coimbra, who came from the
University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“Though young in their careers, Professors Diaz and Coimbra
bring exceptionally strong scholarship and teaching priorities to
our engineering programs at UC Merced,” said Dean Jeff Wright of
the School of Engineering. “Their refreshing perspective on
contemporary mechanical engineering provides a framework for
building what will soon be one of our largest programs.”

“We have to operate without the advantages of senior faculty and
alumni, but we also find some freedom in that,” Coimbra said. “We
don’t have the history and the inertia that come with being an
established institution.”

That means they’re free to bring in new technology without going
through a long approval process, for example. They can also tailor
the program to the current realities of the engineering job market.

“We contacted vice presidents of technology at several
companies,” Diaz explained. “They confirmed that the field has
changed. These days, engineers have to solve problems before they
even bid to them because clients are so much more averse to risk.”

Wright added that the field has become extremely competitive,
and students must be immediately valuable to their firms upon graduation.

These changes mean that the use of computer models has become
essential to the practice of engineering. Diaz and Coimbra both
have experience in that aspect of mechanical engineering, and they
invited Professor Mike Sprague of the School of Natural Sciences to
help develop the curriculum in that regard.

“The computer is now an extremely powerful tool, commonly used
by engineers,” said Sprague. “Yet it’s included only as an
afterthought in many mechanical engineering programs. Here, it’s an
inherent tool from the beginning of the curriculum.”

Sprague holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and was hired by
UC Merced as a professor of applied mathematics, although his
research still has significant overlap with mechanical engineering.
The interdisciplinary cooperation represented by his assistance
developing the mechanical engineering program is a hallmark of UC
Merced’s academic programs.

Together, Sprague, Diaz and Coimbra also identified another
problem that can beset mechanical engineering programs: overspecialization.

“A good mechanical engineering education must include principles
and laws that can apply to many different fields,” said Coimbra.
“We have to give students a broad background that they can put to
work in bioengineering, nanoengineering, computer science and
engineering, electrical engineering, automotive or aerospace
companies, process engineering, and even construction. Automation
is so important in every industry now, and that’s a great way to
use a mechanical engineering degree.”

“It’s easy to become too hot-topic-oriented rather than
providing a foundation in the fundamentals,” Sprague added. “We are
educating good engineers who can attack any technology, regardless
of changes in the field. Students who come out of our program
should be good critical thinkers and have a solid understanding of
the physics that underlie mechanical engineering.”

The professors’ research helps them balance those basics with
the latest developments in the field. For example, Diaz is involved
with developing thermal controls using artificial neural networks
that mimic the functions of a brain as it learns information and
estimates new problems. He’s also interested in applying his
knowledge to other energy systems like car engines and solar power
in hopes of making them more efficient.

Coimbra recently participated in a project involving an
evolutionary methodology, meaning that he and his colleagues used
computer simulations to test all possible paths of evolution and
find the most efficient shape for a solar receiver. It turned out
to look something like a maple leaf, raising the possibility that
in addition to being extremely efficient it could also address some
aesthetic concerns regarding solar energy collectors.

“These are the kinds of new tools we may be able to bring to
students as they become accepted,” Coimbra said. “If they
understand the fundamentals, they’ll be prepared for them.”