Inside look: The new Rhines Hall lab is a space for collaborative learning

Published: March 27th, 2018

Category: Uncategorized

“Zoom in.”

“A little more.”

“What evidence do you see in the surface appearance that you can use to determine if it is a brittle or ductile failure?”

MSE Professor Nancy Ruzycki, Ph.D., can be heard coaching two students who are working at the Scanning Electron Microscope while other students prepare samples, examine material structures and write up case studies for a laboratory experience in failure analysis.

The lab is still alive with students even as 5 p.m. – the end of both the lab class and work day – approaches.

Formerly a garage filled with welding equipment, the space was renovated into a research lab in the early 2010s and had another facelift recently, turning it into the department’s first deliberate collaborative learning space.  

Department Chair Dr. Michele Manuel knew the initial research lab wasn’t living up to its potential, and it was time to change that.

“I wanted a lab that would bring researchers together throughout our program and provide a training ground on equipment that students would be using in the field and that would bring the theory classes to life,” Manuel said. “I also wanted a space that was inviting.”

Tucked behind the Mechanical Properties and Metals Processing laboratories, the newly renovated colorful and brightly lit 3,021 square foot collaborative lab has its own lobby area, the primary open lab space, and a computational corner.

The department has been the recipient of several grants and donations, including the new Sintratec Kit that was donated by EOS, which is a company that specializes in additive manufacturing equipment.

Ford Motor Company donated funds for a $3,000 FDM filament printer and a $78,000 Differential Scanning Calorimeter and Thermogravimetric Analysis.

Previously, the department had no thermal measurement capabilities.

“This donation helped us modernize our labs and provide all new opportunities for our students,” Ruzycki said. “It isn’t just the big-dollar items that bring us to new levels. The filament printer is making a difference in our 3D printing opportunities.”

Ruzycki developed a strategic redesign for the space that combined both form and function to bring together the core curriculum concepts with collaborative project- and problem-based learning.

In order to solve some engineering problems, students need very specific equipment like the Scanning Electron Microscope. The SEM allows the engineers-in-training to see the topography of the materials that can give them the clues they need to figure out what caused the failure. Students are trained and take a practical test to become independent users of the machine.  

Liam Brennan, a junior in Materials Science and Engineering, is using his SEM training during Ruzycki’s junior design lab to study the LCD material of a computer that he took apart in Dr. Kevin Jones’ class on materials characterization.

“The SEM is really cool because of its sophistication,” Brennan said. “We can look at this polymer that we think is flat and put it in the SEM and see that it has a pattern.”

For everyday users of computers, this pattern means nothing. However, for the performance of the LCD it plays an important role in how the liquid crystal flows and creates the light on the screen.

Pretty cool, indeed.

The SEM and Differential Scanning Calorimeter and Thermogravimetric Analysis are just two of the many important pieces of equipment housed in this lab that are widely used in both academia and industry. The space also includes nine computers with Leica’s EZ4D microscopes.

In addition, some of the newest equipment being used in classes and among design teams are the host of 3D printers which span the range of current methods including filament printers, stereolithography printers (SLA) and fused deposition printers.

As Ruzycki walks the perimeter of the lab and explains each of the printers, she notes that they represent different techniques in polymer printing. Just polymers.

“Next we are hoping to get 3D printers that allow metal and ceramic printing,” Ruzycki said.

The student lab fees help pay for this equipment, so the students can see where their money goes and make good use it. However, the fees don’t completely fund all the needs. The SEM cost alone was about $150,000.

“We are preparing students to be the next generation of engineers, and having a welcoming space and the proper equipment is essential for teaching them technical and professional skills and training them for future careers as materials scientists and engineers,” Ruzycki said.

As the students prep their samples for fracture examination and seamlessly move through the SEM steps, it is clear the students already see themselves as engineers.

Up next for this space? Hopefully, a name and maybe more equipment to support student learning and development.

If you would like to support student research, consider donating to the Materials Science and Engineering Fund.