Higher-intensity education

Working with advanced technology preps students for careers

| Author: ​Jeff Johnston

If you want to know why technology matters at Central Michigan University, ask Detroit senior Phoenix Jones about his experience in theLab of Quantum Materials where physics faculty member Junjie Yang grows crystals from atoms.

“I want to use all the things I’ve learned to do in his lab to get a job,” Jones said, “and I have no doubt I will.”

When hiring Yang to do innovative research on improving silicon wafers in electronics, CMU provided him the resources to create the new lab in the Dow Science Complex.

It’s just one of the ways technology — especially advanced research equipment — drives learning and career preparation at CMU.

Junjie Yang’s lab can create materials not found in nature.

Hands-on experience readies students for jobs in the real world, said David Ash, vice president for research and dean of graduate studies.

“We’re training our students to be able to walk into a lab and feel comfortable,” he said.

The same is true in CMU’s unique microscopy concentration, where biology majors train on powerful electron microscopes that magnify objects up to 3 million times.

“Students in this program typically have a job as they walk out the door at graduation,” said biology faculty member Joanne Dannenhoffer, who teaches microscopy courses and advises students. Alumni have gone on to work at microscopy labs and medical centers at places like Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health and The Dow Chemical Co.

CMU’s most powerful microscopes are career-builders.

It’s not just students in the traditional sciences who benefit.

Students learning fashion design use the 3D printers in CMU’s Makerbot Innovation Center, and student artists use the precision cutting tools in the Department of Art and Design, whose plasma cutter can slice through nearly an inch of solid metal with hotter-than-the-sun temperatures.

Powerful digital fabrication tools fire up creative energies.

The extraordinary equipment in CMU’s interdisciplinary Center for Merchandising and Design Technology includes adult- and infant-sized research manikins that heat up and perspire like humans, an environmental chamber that can simulate climates from minus 20 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 95 percent humidity, and a 3D body scanner that collects 120 different body measurements.

The center serves students in fields such as engineering, computer science, and fashion merchandising and design.

In 2017, four CMU students and CMDT Coordinator Susanne Wroblewski created and tested an insulated bra for women who have had breast reconstruction. It became the first product to emerge from the center as its own business, Elemental.

“Very few universities have these tools,” Wroblewski said. “CMU wants students to have access to the latest and greatest.”

Students and faculty sweat the details at the CMDT.

In a sweet spot

Executive Vice President and Provost Michael Gealt said that as a Carnegie R2 research institution, CMU has the status to attract high-level researchers and equipment — and the grants that often support them — while Central’s size enables students to take the controls.

Gealt and Ash noted that at larger universities, multiple layers of graduate assistants and other intermediaries often stand between students and professors and their research.

“At CMU, you’ll see faculty members and undergrads standing side by side working on projects together,” Ash said.

Case in point: Engineering and technology faculty member Yousef Haseli recently teamed up with six senior research assistants to build a gasifier for alternative fuel research.

Making choices

With so much gee-whiz technology out there, how does CMU decide what’s worth its investment?

“We have world-class faculty who are at the cutting edge of what’s happening in their fields,” Gealt explained. “The research determines the technology.”

Ash points to the new biosafety level-three hazardous materials lab in the Biosciences Building, where chemistry and biochemistry faculty member Ben Swarts researches how to fight tuberculosis.

“We would not have built that unless we had a faculty member coming in who would need it,” Ash said.

CMU’s biosafety lab helps researchers work safely with pathogens.

Self-sufficiency comes into play, too. Once CMU approves a piece of research equipment, there’s often an expectation that a faculty member or department will help make the technology pay for itself through grants or business partnerships.

Research for clothing manufacturers and others on the CMDT’s full-size thermal manikin paid for the center’s $120,000 infant-sized manikin — the first in the U.S. — in October.

“This is our first major purchase with monies earned, and we are extremely excited and proud,” human environmental studies faculty member and CMDT Director Maureen MacGillivray said at the time.

Need to keep advancing

One thing is certain: Technology never stands still.

Gealt noted that DNA sequencing equipment once the size of a conference table now is smaller than a Kleenex box.

“We have to keep pace with the advances in instrumentation,” he said.

Even the College of Medicine’s high-tech robotic patient simulators on campus and in Saginaw need regular updates.

“The new ones allow you to feel the tissue,” Gealt said. “That’s important. You want a better-trained surgeon, a better-trained physician.”

Robotic patients help train CMU physicians.

Ash agreed that when it comes to tech, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience.

“You can read about technology all you want and look at pictures,” he said, “but to get the full benefit you have to touch it.”

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