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A quick peek into the exciting world of engineering research

To a non-engineer, the side-by-side automation and robotics laboratories on the WSU Vancouver campus look like an erector set on steroids. But, for Patrick Rucker, graduate student in mechanical engineering, the complicated workshops filled with wires, computers, motors and gadgets represent an exciting world of possibility.

Rucker is a non-traditional student who returned to college after working in a variety of occupations. He expects to graduate this spring with a master’s degree. His enthusiasm for engineering is contagious and his eyes sparkle when he talks about the research taking place at WSU Vancouver.

“The hallways are filled with posters describing research we are doing here. Students are welcome to stop by, read them and ask questions anytime,” Rucker said.

The mechatronics lab Rucker works in is developing sophisticated computer models.

“The big ideas are already there, but filling in the little details is what takes the time,” Rucker said.

The lab’s basic mission is to link motors with circuits.

“Machines have no brain. In automation we try to give them a brain so they will know things like when to start and stop, how fast to go, etc.” he said.

In the hallway outside the robotics lab, Rucker discussed the work presented on a giant poster. Diagrams and notes describe research on an MR (or magnetorheological) brake in which an inner cylinder rotates inside an outer cylinder. The gap between the two is filled with fluid that contains iron particles. When a magnetic field is applied, the viscosity of the fluid changes. When the fluid is thin, the wheel turns easily. But when the magnetic field is applied, it impacts the iron particles and the liquid thickens to a peanut butter consistency, slowing the rotation of the cylinders.

“Because of work like this, companies can now design MR-brakes with reduced size and cost for consumer products,” Rucker said.

In the microfluidics lab across the hall, engineers are trying to simulate hearing loss on a micro scale and a giant wind tunnel is ready for use in experiments where temperatures can rise to extreme levels.

Rucker said Vancouver’s location close to industry, allows for working relationships with local companies.

“As students, we try to work with local companies for our senior capstone projects. Columbia Machine, a local business and large Clark County employer, has worked with us almost every year,” Rucker said.

Columbia Machine challenges engineering students with real-life design problems, then works with them collaboratively to solve the challenges.

“Lots of our graduates go to work there,” Rucker said. “That is why we are redesigning our automation lab. We are trying to give engineering graduates experience working with the tools they will use in these industries. Theory is good, but sometimes you want to go beyond theory and hook wires up to something.”

Rucker said the engineering labs often need research assistants. He emphasizes that participating as a lab assistant is a great way for students to further their career path by gaining experience in a research environment.

Although most research positions are for engineering students, Rucker said students from any discipline are welcome to come by and ask questions.

“We are a big community and we are all in this together. And, we are always looking for more engineering students,” Rucker said. “Engineering is a hard path and students really need to know it is what they want. With the current problems in the economy, it’s a little weird right now, but even so lots of graduates are getting jobs with local companies.”

In June 2011, Rucker and a group of four other engineering students went to Bejing, China to compete in the International Contest of Application in Nano-Micro Technology. The team’s project involved a micro-magnetic sensor.

“It could fit on the tip of my little finger,” Rucker said. “It was a pretty big hit in China — our group got third place. Our claim to fame was being the only team that was 100 percent undergraduate students.”

The school of engineering and computer science will hold an open house from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Nov. 15 in VECS 104. Students and the general public are invited to tour the labs, learn more about the research underway on the WSU Vancouver campus and find out about the academic programs in these exciting fields.

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