Never too late to go to school
Paul Rael’s decision to enroll in the Department of Technology at the University of Northern Iowa in 2000 for a bachelor’s degree in electromechanical systems must have been surprising — to his friends, colleagues, and family.
After all, he already had an associate’s degree in electronics engineering technology from Hawkeye Community College and had been working as an electronics technician for more than 10 years.
He had his reasons, though — two, to be precise.
“I was fixing automated machines,” he says, “but seeing them being built made me realize I wanted to know how to engineer them.”
Also, the company that he was working for at the time “was just entering the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] automated equipment business.”
“Unfortunately, their OEM automated equipment endeavor was short lived,” Rael recalls. “While I was attending UNI, they got out of it. Thankfully, I decided to finish my degree anyway.”
Going back to school after such a long break was challenging, Rael recounts. “Being a non-traditional student, the challenge was juggling home life, work, and school. I had to sacrifice the things I liked to do in my free time for classes and study time.”
The undergraduate coursework at UNI was challenging, too, he says. “Some of my most challenging courses were Calculus I and II and Physics for Science and Engineering I and II, but for me they were also some of the most rewarding.”
The most interesting project that Rael worked on was his senior year design project.
“It was a standalone test cell project for John Deere,” he recounts. “It contained a programmable logic controller and a human-machine interface for the operator to customize various aspects of the test he/she was performing.”
Rael graduated summa cum laude from the Department of Technology in 2004 and, two years later, he joined TDS Automation, a Doerfer company.
“At TDS Automation, we build OEM automated equipment for various industries,” he says. “I work as an electrical controls engineer designing, programming, testing, and installing the equipment we engineer.”
What Rael likes most about his job is the variety of tasks that it involves.
“Sometimes I’m doing the electrical CAD [computer-aided design] of a project, while at other times I’m programming a machine to perform the specific task it’s designed for,” he says. “Most of our projects last from a few weeks to a few years. Every project is different, giving me the opportunity to learn something new all the time.”
He thinks what he studied at UNI laid the foundation for him to “understand and use the technologies we engineer into our equipment every day.”
“The science and technology courses taught me how to understand, evaluate, and overcome difficult technological challenges,” he says.
His days at UNI may have been challenging but Rael strongly believes “the reward was definitely worth the price.” “I don’t think I’d be where I’m at today without the education I received at UNI,” he says.
Thus, he advises students to “study in high school, dream big, and go to college.”
“For most, having a college degree will present many more opportunities than a high school diploma,” he adds. “Having entered UNI as a non-traditional student, I can also say that it’s never too late to go to school.”
A journey into the world of CAD and 3D Modeling
Jason Van Clark’s journey into the world of computer-aided design and three-dimensional modeling began by chance.
“I was choosing classes for my junior year [at high school] and needed one more class,” says Van Clark, now a senior mechanical designer at Doerfer Companies. “My counselor suggested that I take technical drawing/drafting.”
It was a two-semester course and involved drawing on the board and also on computer using AutoCAD, a software application for 2D and 3D computer-aided design and drafting. Van Clark whizzed through the nine-month course in two months, and went on to complete the coursework for the two follow-up courses by the end of his junior year.
That posed a problem for Mr. Miller, the new drafting instructor in his senior year. “He needed something to fill my time as I already had the coursework done,” Van Clark recalls.
“He set me up with a company called CemenTech in Indianola where I’m from,” he adds. “That led to a summer job and real work experience at an industrial manufacturer.”
Mr. Miller was also the one to tell Van Clark that he had a natural talent for CAD and 3D modeling, and that he should focus on these in college.
“I didn’t even know I could get a job doing this sort of thing,” Van Clark recounts. “I talked to a counselor and decided UNI had the program that best fit what I thought I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be an engineer but I wanted to run CAD programs.”
In the fall of 1999, he was enrolled in the University of Northern Iowa as a Manufacturing Technology major.
Life at UNI was challenging as well as rewarding.
“My undergraduate coursework covered a wide range of topics,” Van Clark says. “Some of the courses were very challenging and those were the ones that were the most rewarding.”
He remembers a course that he took early on in his UNI days. The course “included hands-on time in the shop, running mills and lathes” and “laid the foundation of an understanding of how manufacturing works.”
He took several classes that focused on CAD and 3D modelling that helped him develop skills that he uses daily in his work at Doerfer. Some of the information that he learned in Statics and Strengths of Materials then also helps him to evaluate the strength of his designs at Doerfer now.
Van Clark’s journey into the world of Doerfer also began by chance.
“I had never heard of Doerfer before and needed an internship to go towards my graduation requirements at UNI,” he says.
It was the fall of 2002. Doerfer was located in Cedar Falls then.
“I happened to be passing by and decided to stop in and inquire about any opportunities they might have,” Van Clark recalls. “I ended up getting a two-hour interview, on the spot.”
His interviewers were impressed with his initiative and his willingness to do whatever they needed, he adds. “I got a phone call a few days later, offering me a position.”
After graduating from the Department of Technology at UNI in the spring of 2003, Van Clark worked for another company for a year before Doerfer called and offered him a full-time position; he has been there ever since.
His position at Doerfer affords him the opportunity to a wide range of work. “I design machines, tooling and fixture for use in industrial settings,” he says. “I have worked on fully-automated assembly lines, large articulating weld fixtures and assembly tools. I was also the primary designer for our Wheelift product for many years.”
Van Clark has also had the opportunity to venture into computer programming. “I write custom programs with SolidWorks to streamline our workflow. In addition to design and programming, I also maintain our CAD templates.”
He believes his academic training continues to help him as he progresses in his career.
“There is a lot of intrinsic knowledge I gained in college,” he says. “One of those skills is being resourceful. Having confidence that I can face challenges and overcome them is another.”
“The curriculums at UNI, both gen-eds and course-specific classes, cover a wide range of subjects,” he adds. “Those courses force you to consider topics from other perspectives. In many cases, they force you to consider topics that are completely new to you.”
“I have found that I have been doing that nearly every day since I graduated,” he states. “The world is constantly changing, requiring us to learn new things, relearn old things and to change our views and opinions constantly.”
That is why Van Clark believes students should “take as many different courses as possible, especially ones they don’t know anything about.”
“That is a great way to find what they are passionate about; what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” he says.
He also believes that students should “take jobs in as many different industries as possible.”
“It is good to work in retail, food service, construction, whatever they can find,” he says. “Every job they have will give them more tools and knowledge that they can use later in life. Those jobs will also expose them to careers they may be interested in.”
“College is a great period in life when you can job-hop, take time to study a variety of subjects, and talk to people about anything you want,” he adds. “It doesn’t seem obvious but a lot of those opportunities disappear after you graduate.”
Mastering the Multi-player
For elementary and secondary education students across the country, summer is typically a time to hit up the pool for an afternoon of swimming, participate in summer reading programs at their local library or venture away from home on a family vacation. For many students in the Cedar Valley, though, a part of this past summer was spent on UNI’s campus participating in a UNI STEM Summer Camp. Of the hundreds of kids who participated this summer, though, one of them hails from a little farther south; Florida to be exact.
Willie Brown is a high school student from a small town in Florida. When he was given the opportunity to spend part of his summer in Iowa with his aunt, Stacey Hannigan, he couldn’t refuse. While his time in Iowa was short, Brown and eighteen other campers spent a week participating in the Mastering Multi-players campe, directed by Dr. Paul Gray, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science. Dr. Gray’s camp gave campers the opportunity to learn about setting up computer servers, security for the server and how to manage an online game.
“Campers were given a year-long access to a server on the cloud to host their site,” explained Dr. Gray. “This server access was funded by NSF EPSCoR and served as a place for the camper’s online gaming to exist.” Brown, like the other campers around him, spent the week in Dr. Gray’s camp learning how to set up his server and begin building his own world in the game, Minecraft. Minecraft is an online, multi-player gaming system that enables players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world. Players can then explore, gather resources from other worlds, and engage in combat to defend their world.
“The campers weren’t just playing the game though,” said Dr. Gray. “They were using the operating system, Linux, to administrate their Minecraft world and their server. As an administrator to their world, campers could control the game on both the front end through an administrators interface in the Minecraft game, or, they could control it from the back end with coding and programming.” This meant learning to use open source software, upload, download, program a server and maintain server security.
Over the past few months, most of the campers who participated in Dr. Gray’s camp have halted, or have only sporatic activity on their server and the construction of their world. The exception to this being Brown, who has since returned to Florida but remains in contact with Dr. Gray through e-mail to continue building and enhancing his Minecraft world.
“Willie does most of the building of his world and only contacts me when there is something that he just can’t figure out.” Dr. Gray said. From administrative add-ons such as ‘World Edit’ and ‘No Cheat’, to playability add-ons such as ‘Double Jump’ and ‘World Guard’, Brown has truly mastered this multi-player game and has found a passion for coding and programming thanks in part to a UNI STEM Summer Camps.
Iowa Academy of Science
Sitting on campus, right across University Ave. from central campus, is a hidden treasure in the state of Iowa. Tucked away in the Biology Research Complex on the Southwest corner of College Street and University Avenue is the Iowa Academy of Science. Founded in 1875, the Academy provides a venue for scientists & engineers in the state to meet and share their research.
“The Academy was formed in 1875 with thirteen charter members who rode by horseback to get to Iowa City for the inaugural meeting,” described Craig Johnson, Executive Director of the Academy. “The original thirteen members were living all over the state and the purpose for coming together once a year was for easier communication amongst the group.” In the late 1800s, the means by which people communicated looked different than it does today. For this reason, the charter members decided to meet up annually in order to exchange their scientific research and share their work from their respective science disciplines.
“While technology has changed, the Academy still exists for the purpose of communication.” Said Johnson. With twelve sections of different disciplines represented within the Academy, the Annual Meeting, held in April of each year, provides an opportunity for members of the Academy to come together to share their findings with those who work in other disciplines.
“Last year, we had 160 research presentations given at our Annual Meeting,” detailed Johnson. “Posters and oral presentations ranged in topics from organismal biology to environmental science and health and everything in-between.” A majority of those presenting at the conference are undergraduate and graduate students showing the research they have conducted during their education. In addition, practicing scientists & engineers from across the state of Iowa present their research and findings at the conference as well.
So why join the Iowa Academy of Science?
Endless opportunities await undergraduate and graduate student members of the Academy. From access to scientific journals and opportunities to present their research in a collegial atmosphere, to the connections that can be made with researchers across the state in their respective fields, the Iowa Academy of Science is a worthy organization to join to further your professional development. For faculty, the Academy provides opportunities to share research, have collegial conversations, and a venue to bring undergraduate and graduate researchers.
There are currently over 750 members of the Academy. To join, visit www.scienceiniowa.org and click on Membership.
Meeting the Needs of Students
A common question heard from undergraduate students today is “What is the point?” From questioning their parents to questioning an instructor, students today seek validity in what they are spending their time doing. Students want to know that what they are spending their time on in the classroom is worthwhile and not just a time filler to get to the end of the semester. Last year, the Department of Physics at UNI made changes to their course offerings in order to better meet the needs of their students and in return, have kept that common phrase from being muttered in the labs of Begeman Hall.
Dr. Tim Kidd, associate professor of physics at UNI, assisted in the planning of the new and redesigned courses. Changes have included:
The creation of the course First Year Projects in Physics (Physics 1100). The revamping of the course Digital Electronics & Robotics, which was renamed Physical Computing (Physics 4310). Finally, the splitting of the course Introduction to Electronics (Physics 4300) into two courses, Introduction to Electronics (Physics 4300) and Project Lead the Way: Digital Electronics (Physics 4290).
“When we were looking at updating our courses we started with our Introduction to Electronics course,” explained Kidd. “That course was taught to a mix of science education majors and science/engineering majors and was based in algebra.” With this course being split into two separate courses, the curriculum was re-designed with the students in mind.
“The old Introduction to Electronics course did not have content that our science education majors needed in order to teach in high school,” stated Kidd. “For our science and engineering students, they weren’t getting the math they needed for graduate school or industry prep. So we split the course into two so we could tailor the material to the students in each major.” The new Introduction to Electronics course is calculus based and geared more toward science and engineering students while the new Project Lead the Way: Digital Electronics course is taught using the PLTW curriculum for science and technology education students.
“[PLTW] is a national curriculum for high school teachers that many school districts are using. When our students complete and pass the course, they can receive a certification to teach this curriculum in a school,” said Kidd. “So by teaching our students using this curriculum as the basis, it gives the students a leg up when applying for teaching jobs because they already have the certification and the school districts don’t have to pay to certify them.”
This wasn’t the only course redesigned to assist students in gaining practical knowledge and a certificate for their future career. The course, Physical Computing, was revamped to allow students who have taken the course to become certified in the first level of a program called LabVIEW.
“When we redesigned this course, we focused on a program called LabVIEW,” stated Kidd. “The certification from LabVIEW is heavily used in the industry and businesses are actively seeking people who have knowledge using the program. As an entry-level employee, our students will most likely need to have this certification so we figured, why not prepare them in class so they are prepared to obtain this certification before they enter the job market.”
This semester, Joe Kosmicki, a sophomore majoring in physics, is enrolled in the new Introduction to Electronics course in addition to Physics 3: Theory & Simulation, Calculus 3 and Japan. He says that the new electronics course is by far his toughest class this semester.
“It’s really challenging me but I’m learning a lot,” Kosmicki said. “I want to become a mechanical engineer so I don’t see myself going into the area of electronic engineering, but this course is making me well rounded in the technology field so I have the background knowledge, even if it’s not something directly related to my future career necessarily.”