Beyond Drafting Tables and Cyberinfrastructures

by Sharyn Kopf — Cedarville, Ohio

The team took their place at the starting line, ready to compete; ready to win. After months of preparation, they knew they had the skills, the endurance and the passion to leave all the other teams in the dust.

But these aren’t your normal athletes. In fact, for these particular competitions, they weren’t athletes at all. They’re engineering and computer science majors from Cedarville University … but they still know how to make a name for the school in national and international contests. And this drive to take what they have learned out of the classroom and apply it to hands-on projects stands as just one of the reasons Cedarville’s Engineering and Computer Science Department offers one of the best programs around.

“Our programs are very broad-based in nature,” Dr. Sam SanGregory, department chair, says. “It allows students to not only compete, but to find employment in a broad class of fields.”

Take, for example, the engineering team that recently advanced to the final round of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America Student Design Competition. Focused on creating innovative technology to help individuals with disabilities function more independently, seven Cedarville students joined advisor Dr. Tim Norman in entering a special walker for children with cerebral palsy. It was designed in such a way as to teach proper walking technique. The University’s team placed in the top 10, and was invited — all expenses paid — to Washington, D.C., for the award ceremony.

But for team member Ricky Young, it wasn’t about winning. “I can’t describe the sense of accomplishment and gratification we got from seeing children benefit from using the walker,” he says. “This was a great opportunity to see how engineering can directly impact someone’s life.”

Or consider our world champion Solar Splash team, who not only won for the fourth time in five years, but beat out teams from the University of Arkansas, Carnegie Mellon University and the Istanbul Technical University in Turkey. This summer, they received 978 points out of a possible 1,000 — the most ever achieved by a team at Solar Splash, and trumping Cedarville’s previous record of 974 points.

Then there are the electrical engineers, who built an autonomous robotic lawnmower as part of the 5th Annual Institute of Navigation Robotic Lawnmower Competition … and came home with a first place finish in their division.

Other competitions Cedarville teams have placed in include the Formula Society of Automobile Engineers® race on the Michigan International Speedway, the SAE Aero Design®, the SAE Supermileage®, and the Shell Eco-Marathon.

The Cedarville faculty encourage not only a competitive spirit in their athletes, but a drive to do their best and to always be willing to learn more.

“We push them beyond their comfort level,” says Dr. Tim Dewhurst, professor of engineering and Solar Splash team advisor. “In a job, there are two responses you can give when asked to do something you’ve never done before: you can say you don’t know how it’s done and you can’t do it or you can say you don’t know how it’s done but you want to figure it out. We train students to do the latter.”

Dr. Tim Norman, also an engineering professor and advisor for the children’s walker team, adds, “Our students design with the end-user in mind. They are eager to use their skills to serve others.”

Beyond Borders
All Cedarville students are encouraged to use their knowledge and skills for more than a career, and they have a reputation for doing just that. Engineering and computer science majors are no exception.

For instance, they participate in SEAM — the Society of Engineers Aiding Missions. Formed at Cedarville, the society provides an opportunity for students to work directly with missionaries on the field. They have taken three trips to Liberia where they have done projects such as building solar-powered lights so the missionaries could see at night.

In 2007, teams created a map with elevations in order to create a water system in (Liberia?). These mechanical engineers worked on chlorination and water purification, providing clean water for those in need. And for four of the past five years, computer science majors have been traveling to Romania to offer computer training and to set up computer labs.

But these students don’t have to just think globally when it comes to sharing the Gospel. “There are unreached people groups behind walls of cubicles,” SanGregory says. “The most effective way to get to them is to get behind those cubical walls … and the best way to do that is to have the credentials to work with them. We give our students the credentials to be hirable. But we also give spiritual training in ethics, biblical truth and witnessing in the workforce.”

A Winning Strategy
One of the new elements in the department is the decision to offer specialty tracks of concentration in computer science, such as: computer graphics, distributed computing, computer hardware and operations research. This allows students to focus all their elective courses in one area and take interdisciplinary courses outside the department that support that concentration. For example, someone studying computer graphics could take electives in video production, principles of animation, and interactive interface design with Flash.

Another strength is Cedarville’s relatively small class sizes. SanGregory says, “The student/faculty interaction is high, which also makes it easy to provide one-on-one mentoring. And all our lab courses are taught by faculty, not graduate assistants.”

This is a program committed to creating winners by combining a quality education with a strong, biblical foundation. “Recruiters express great interest in our students,” says Jay Kinsinger, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and advisor for the Jackets Racing Formula SAE team. “Their experience creates the exact kind of employee they want because students learn how to put into practice what they have studied in the classroom, they learn to work well as a team, and they gain the determination to finish well.”