There is a sleek, modern-looking building whose storefront faces Bishop Street. The drive-byes identify it as a Jimmy Johns sandwich shop. When you pull into the parking lot, enter the building's front door and turn left, you can get a tuna sub with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions on whole wheat. If you continue down the hall and turn right (you can only enter with a security card) you enter a maker hive where incredible things happen for students with the guts enough to try . . .
There is a sleek, modern-looking building whose storefront faces Bishop Street. The drive-byes identify it as a Jimmy Johns sandwich shop. When you pull into the parking lot, enter the building’s front door and turn left, you can get a tuna sub with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions on whole wheat. If you continue down the hall and turn right (you can only enter with a security card) you enter a maker hive—a clubhouse of sorts, where Missouri S&T undergraduates get to play with power tools to make things like rockets that travel to heights of 10,000 ft., solar cars that can travel 90 mph or even a robotic Mars rover. This is the Kummer Design Center building or as the S&T administration calls it, “The Student Experiential Design Center.”
It’s the home for 18 different student design teams with a staff of five that serve as support. First and foremost, students choose to participate on a project that is outside normal classwork—it is totally an extracurricular activity. Students design and build specific projects that are duplicated by other schools across the U.S., and some, from around the world, with the sole purpose of competing for the best engineering outcome, whether it’s a concrete canoe that floats better than the others, a rocket that flies higher with predicted flight patterns or a grueling race in a Formula SAE-built racing car.
It’s a place where students learn to cooperate as a team, but it is much more than completing an impressive design-build project. They learn how to write and present business plans and how to raise money to travel to competitions, some world-wide. Most importantly, they learn how to fail together and how to bounce-back. Designers call it “fail-fast,” a process that allows for unexpected outcomes in order to solve problems quickly.
Bob Phelan is the outreach manager for the Design Center. He says the Kummer Design Center is a big outreach asset for the university.
“We do a lot of recruiting, marketing and serve as an inspiration—we do Tech Summit in Mo. where we speak to 400 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students, Boy and Girl Scout events—all kinds of events, so outreach is a critical part of what we do,” he explained.
The day Rolla Daily News toured the facility, teachers from all over the state were in a meeting room for “Project Lead the Way,” where they learn a curriculum to teach students “pre-engineering” and “pre-biology” which culminates in using some the shop’s tools to build prototypes of projects.
“I want kids to learn to turn over rocks and dig and ask—it’s amazing what you can get when you ask,” said Phelan. We love to watch them grow and learn and we teach them to challenge us.”
They focus on the process. Failing is a part of the process and communication plays a role from start to finish, whether the outcome is success or failure.
“How do they present their ideas?” he asks. “How do they argue effectively for them? It’s learning how and when to break the rules, because rules are for the obedience of fools and for the guidance of the wise. We want them to go into industry prepared to take on anything, and they’ll learn this, taking on team-based design projects.”
Richard Dalton is the safety and shop operations manager at the Design Center. He’s a machinist. Prior to taking his current position, he taught machine tool technology for 11 years at Linn Tech, so he knows his way around monster cutters, lathes, presses and 3-D printers.
“I teach them (the students) how to leave here with all ten fingers and toes,” he jokes.
He starts his tour by noting undergraduate students with any major can participate on a design-build team. Having engineers is definitely a plus for obvious reasons, but the humanities are just as welcome.
“Every team needs it (the diversity) because every team is run as a mini-business,” he said. “The primary requirement to be a team is they have to be [part of] a collegiate competition, so they have to compete against other schools.”
Dalton refers to their activities as “brain sports” as opposed to athletic team sports. It’s all about taking small components that do different things under extreme conditions to create something that outperforms the competition to fly higher, go further and accelerate faster than the competition. That’s not easy from the get-go.
As an example, Dalton explains that many times, students need to design and make their own circuit boards, the electronics that will drive a functional operation.
“What they’re trying to accomplish, you can’t just go on the open market and buy,” said Dalton. “They have to figure it out and then build it from scratch.”
The Design Center’s space looks like a big maker’s workshop with recognizable projects parked in their own designated areas in various states of disarray. There’s the Mars rover, the solar-powered car and an electric Formula race car. It’s not as big as an airport hanger, but an ample space with lots of natural and artificial light. There is an electronics room stocked full of organized tiny components, meters, oscilloscopes and computers. The heavy shop equipment like lathes and presses are relegated to the far end of the main room and a large water jet cutter sits further back in its own lair. It’s both impressive and daunting. It’s a place where the S&T design teams craft their creations and turn them into trophies. They win and place often in the competitions and it’s Bob Phelan’s job to see those wins turn into tangibles like individual student advancement and recruitment for the university.
Last year, the group took a number of team projects down to an engineering educators conference in New Orleans. One of those projects was B-24, a human powered vehicle.
“B-24 was inspired by the fact the team was always using the number 24, for reasons I have no idea,”
He said one of the students was an artist as well as team leader, so this human powered vehicle was designed to look like the front end of a WWII B-24 bomber.
“The design takes the aluminum and segues it into the carbon fiber, so it’s a creative piece,” he shares. “It’s not just about making things work, but thinking outside the box and pushing the limits.”
Phelan said the National WWII museum was just eight blocks away from the conference. They took the students over and toured the museum.
“Once we were there, we said ‘we have to ask,’—so we explained what we had and asked if we could bring it in,” he explained.
It took a couple days of emails, but they agreed to let the team go into the museum with “B-24” on their last day in New Orleans. They opened the museum an hour early for the group and “they basically gave us the keys to the building,” said Phelan.
The team took photos of the human powered vehicle using the WWII planes and tanks on display as backdrops, including a real front end of a B-24 bomber called “Roxanne,” in the Boeing Museum of Flight. The museum staff let the S&T group clear away all the stanchions for a photo session and gave them a private tour of the restoration hall where the finishing touches were being put on a PT boat that was about to go on a tour of its own.
“They showed us their engineering,” said Phelan.
He marveled at this unexpected opportunity for the students and the lasting effect of putting their efforts into perspective in the now and then.
In less than ten years, the Design Center’s project teams have increased from eight to 18 according to Dalton, so clearly this program is a value-added endeavor for the university.
Phelan notes it’s not just engineering, but business, marketing and fund-raising. “It’s everything,” he says. “These students are actively recruited [by companies] because our design team members understand the process of global product development.
Dalton adds, ”This is where they take what they learn from the classroom and really apply it.”
A lot of what we do is thinking outside the box. We have only so many tools, so it’s about making our tools work. These kids learn a tremendous amount about leadership that they are going to need when they get out there in the real world.