Mechanical Engineering Major Preparing Students for Changing Field


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."

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