Podcast Transcript: Bridging the Gap between Industry and Academia

By youheng.dong

What first comes to mind when you hear “experiential learning?” Experiential learning takes a more hands-on approach, with students “learning by doing.” It models industry standards and practices and aims to expose students to these concepts before they graduate and start their careers. 

In what fundamental ways does this kind of learning differ from the “traditional” method, specifically when it comes to engineering? What impression has it left on the communities involved? In what ways does it need to be re-worked or reformed?

On this episode of Innovation in the Classroom, join host Dora Smith as she converses with William (Bill) Oakes, award-winning engineering educator and EPICS (Engineering Projects and Community Service) director at Purdue University.

In this episode, Dora and Bill explains:

  • The importance of hands-on experience for engineering majors 
  • The need to bridge the gap between industry and academia
  • How EPICS helped engineering majors become future leaders
  • Why EPICS program is an innovative teaching compared to traditional engineering education
  • How EPICS can, and has, played a role in recruiting a more diverse group of engineering students from a multitude of backgrounds
  • Successful EPICS community partnerships

Podcast Transcript

Dora Smith: What first comes to mind when you hear the term “experiential learning?” Is it something you’ve heard before or is it a completely new concept to you? Experiential learning takes a more hands-on approach to learning, with students “learning by doing”. It models industry standards and practices and aims to expose students to these concepts before they graduate and start their careers. Since its establishment in 1995, Purdue University’s EPICS program has aimed to provide experiential learning to its students by partnering them with local, regional, and global communities to address, and assist with, their needs. In what important ways does this kind of learning differ from the “traditional” method, specifically when it comes to engineering? What impression has it left on the communities involved? In what ways does it need to be re-worked or reformed?

William (Bill) Oakes: EPICS, acronym stands for “engineering projects and community service” and how do we provide/apply technology to those?

Dora Smith: On this episode, I speak to William Oakes, award-winning engineering educator and EPICS director, about the success of the program, how it can be improved, and how it compares to the traditional engineering education experience. I’m Dora Smith, and this is the Innovation in the Classroom podcast. Bill kicked off his engineering career at Procter and Gamble, before getting his masters and starting up at GE Aircraft. He then went on to pursue his PhD at Purdue University. I asked him to break-down his transition from industry into academia. 

William (Bill) Oakes: So when I got into GE Aircraft, I got involved with some of the onboarding programs and started meeting people across programs.And then I got added to the recruiting team, and I started doing campus visits.

Dora Smith: This transition from ‘professional’ back to ‘student’ can be challenging for a number of reasons. Bill walked me through some of the obstacles he encountered. 

William (Bill) Oakes: It was really humbling. One of the things I didn’t appreciate is when I came in as GE in a corporate route and I don’t have an appointment with the dean, so I asked if you can squeeze me in. They are like “sure,” and then I come in as a graduate student and nobody gives you the time in day so that was interesting. When you’re in the corporate world, nobody asks you to do a time-closed test. I’ve come to appreciate that students take test-taking as a skill. I told my students that I flat out failed my first graduate exam because I hadn’t taken a timed exam in years and really practice and ended up recovering fine. I share that, it was hard. I loved being on campus – I got involved with the diversity program. But it was a readjustment. In grad school I realized that my passion is in teaching and not research. So when I took my first faculty position, it was more teaching focused. It’s evolved differently, which has been exciting.

Dora Smith: As you’ve heard, it was Bill’s involvement in college recruiting and working with HR at GE that propelled him from industry back into academia. He spoke to me a bit more about that experience and what it looked like. 

William (Bill) Oakes: On the corporate side, right, we’re, we’re trying to help education, but we’re also trying to make connections with students and looking for opportunities where we could connect and, and I identify talent. I was on the, the industry side trying to line up, what are the things that we could do in aerospace? There’s a lot of stuff that’s beyond what the students could do or proprietary. Could we create cases and settings? I was involved going back and giving lectures or talks that complimented what some of the classes would do. Like could you go into a thermodynamics class and actually show them: Hey, you actually use this stuff at some point, cuz students just seem to inherently believe that they’re we teach them irrelevant facts that are never applicable.

Dora Smith: When we talk about industry and academia, there are calls to align the two more closely so as to meaningfully expose students to industry, and vice versa. Bill shared his own thoughts on bridging the gap between the two.

William (Bill) Oakes: So in the 25 years I’ve been in academia and I really look at how much progress we’ve made in a lot of areas. It’s a little depressing that we haven’t a lot of those same issues that motivated me to change are still there. Some of it’s complexity. I really believe if you go back that need to be like a translator experienced in both worlds. I don’t think we have enough of those people. If you look in the industry and in academic spaces. And, and I think that’s true on, on both sides, we don’t really understand each other. But what we’re really trying to do is provide students with fundamental skills so that they’ll be able to do those on one side and the motivation to see that there’s applications. I think if we look at experiences that are sustainable and, and I mentioned a community engagement, cuz there’s a lot of times to say, okay, here are problems. The students are doing like over in the community and I can have industry mentors come down. And so can you have spaces in the curriculum to bring these interfaces in whether it’s a community project or industry project or some of those things. It’s complex, but we really, we haven’t made as much progress, getting some people to, to talk and develop some models that are scalable.

Dora Smith: As Bill spoke about the need for a ‘translator’ to bridge the gap between industry and academia, I couldn’t help but think of how this applied perfectly to him. As someone with extensive experience in both industry and academia, he has the unique perspective of being able to understand the two sides and the best ways to bring them together.

William (Bill) Oakes: I’ve seen it where the universities go, Hey, we want industry to do this and I’ve seen industry go, Hey, we think that you should do this instead of going in and, and trying to listen and go, okay, where’s that value add for both? This is the ironic thing we teach customer centered design and things at the universities, but we don’t always practice, but industry applies it to their customers, and they don’t always apply it. It’s like, okay, we’re going to talk to the universities, and we don’t always apply those things.

Dora Smith: So if this is the case, what can industry do to better their approach and drive successful collaboration?

William (Bill) Oakes: It’s drilled into me at, at P and G and GEs is you’ve gotta look at the people that you’re working with as you know, who are you serving even internally, you know, who are your customers? And there’s gotta be that value. You’ve gotta have the respect and that value proposition. I think bringing those mindsets, if you start to develop relationships and say, Hey, we wanna be in this for a longer period of time, you can do more significant thing

Dora Smith: As mentioned at the start of this episode, Purdue’s EPICS program aims to provide experiential learning to students. I asked Bill to break down what EPICS is and further explain why it was founded. 

William (Bill) Oakes: EPICS acronym stands for engineering projects and community service. It, it was started while I was getting my PhD. So it was Leah Jameson, ed coil, Hank deets and electrical computer engineering came up with this idea of the original problem they were trying to solve is how do we prepare students for industry? And the innovation that they did is we’re going to do this by engaging students in community based projects, engineering based projects out in the community. And how do we provide apply technology to those? It is multidisciplinary we’ve run about 12 or 1300 students through our courses, their design courses, students use them for different electives

Dora Smith: Bill then explained how it was that he got involved in EPICS.

William (Bill) Oakes: So EPIC started when I was getting my PhD. When I heard about it, I thought, oh, that’s a nice little thing, but it’s not real engineering cuz it’s not industry project. Cuz I got my PhD. So I could bring real industry projects into the academic setting. When I got assigned epics, it took me a few weeks, maybe a month to realize those students were actually doing exactly what I wanted them to do, but the context looked different. And this is for me, what, what really turned things completely upside down that I realized that what I wanted to do is get them working on something that looked like industry. But by putting ’em in a real project with a real customer, real user who didn’t fully understand their specs until they saw the first prototype the students were working on, it was actually what the students were complaining about, right?

They weren’t complaining about grading. They were complaining that our, our partners couldn’t make up their mind and the specifications kept changing. They complained about their colleagues not working as hard and how hard it was working across a diverse team. They’re complaining. They always had a presentation holding over their head and trying to catch up on the documentation to document their design. And I laughed. I said, those were exactly what we complained about when I was working. I said, design engineer, you always had a presentation and things seemed to shift. So I realized very quickly that the community based projects actually could provide that exact context that I wanted. I got assigned to the class. My first semester, they asked me to be a co-director partway through that first semester. And one of the reasons was they said, you’re the only one that’s teaching any of the epic sections as actually worked in industry.

Dora Smith: As Bill himself had trepidation about EPICS. At first, I asked him whether those doubts extended to most faculty. And if this is the reason epic is still only an elective and not a core course.

William (Bill) Oakes: I think a lot of faculty are resistant because they make a rational decision that I don’t have the skills to teach in that environment per se. And I may not be successful. So if you think of the code of ethics for the professional engineers, one of them is don’t practice out of your area of competence. So how do we create spaces where we could bring academics and industry in of saying, you know, how could we design a system where this might be sustainable and where are the pin points? Where are the opportunities for value add? And could we look at things there are pain points for one group that might have a value proposition for another group. And could we look at, at what we would need to do? I think to talk through some of that, get people comfortable. And I think having some free and open dialogue, if I think of the community analogy, I think having some companies say, you know, we might not be able to commit money for multiple years, but maybe we’re committed to be here to walk with you and buying something catastrophic on the business side.

We’re gonna have some people and commit some, some of the people’s time to kind of walk through as an insurance policy over for that. And, and to work with the academics, there’s also getting some other tools and, and figuring out can we invest in some tools that can be replicated? There’s a mindset on the academic side that we really need to, to walk through. It is adapting successes in other places that’s not valued as much as coming up with something brand new, you know, that permeates into, I gotta be able to write an NSF grant and it can’t be similar, but, but how do we make adaptation? Which is significant cuz one of the challenges that I’ve seen is every campus has unique environment and a solution is gonna look different, slightly different at, at every place. But can I take something? Can I replicate and adapt it to our own place?

I’m gonna sound really old back before the turn of the century departments, we’re looking at what service learning community engaged learning would look like. They would have some things where it’s like, okay, can you get some people in a department to go off like for a week? You know, maybe it it’s having these extended times sitting down and saying, what might a solution look like? You develop something and, and then you get other people to kick the tires and, and coming out with that, we are making progress. There are pockets of these things. There’s a global move. Some of the global leaders are moving to more experience based. I think industry and academia respond to the threat of competition. More so as we’re looking at some of these things going on, and if you could look at somebody else’s doing this, it’s not as scary cuz you figured out, maybe they’ve figured out some things, but it’s complex.

And I think I have no doubt that there’s knowledge to figure out how to get there between on the industry side and academic side. I worry sometimes when we have these national initiatives and stuff that we’re looking too big and maybe, you know, if, if I think in industry terms, if we’re looking at something, we start with a pilot pilot plant, <laugh> get this out proof of concept. Yeah. MVP. Yeah. And then we start looking at, at scaling as looking at, can we identify, can we develop some pilots and invest in, in some of these, these pilots as proof of concepts. And then we can work on the replication on some of these other, other things.

Dora Smith: We then went on to discuss one of the important ways in which EPICS is an example of innovative teaching.

William (Bill) Oakes: One of the innovations that the founders created is our course kind of like half of a class, our classes are judged on credit hours and a traditional technical elective in engineering would be three credits. Students take EPICS for one or two credits they can pick. And they have a lower intensity experience, but to get those three credits for the technical elective, they need to take it for at least two semesters. And what that’s allowed us to do is to break the mindset that you’ve gotta do everything in 15 weeks.

Dora Smith: So allocating credits in this manner is innovative as it encourages more meaningful student participation in these community projects and partnerships that are at the heart of EPICS.

William (Bill) Oakes: When we start a partnership, we say, we wanna work with you for at least five years and not just for this semester for this project and the community organizations really need that. Cuz if we’re successful and we develop, let’s say we put a display in a children’s museum. If the creative children break something, what’s the museum gonna do? Well, we’ve got this team that developed something, delivered something. Now they’re working on another design and they have a field issue. So we tell ’em okay, you’ve gotta stop what you’re doing there. Go down to the museum and, and see what’s wrong and see what you’re gonna troubleshoot. And that provides more value to the community partners. And the more value that they see, they treat our students less like a student project and more part of their operation. And so the professionalism rises from the student experience.

Dora Smith: Of course, we can’t talk about innovation in the classroom without discussing innovation of curriculum. 

William (Bill) Oakes: I was in a meeting earlier this week for, with some engineering colleagues. And we’re talking about some, if, if we really did some significant curriculum changes and they’re like, okay, and what do we do with the lower student enrollment? And what if students don’t what if employers don’t want our, our, our graduates? And I said, I think you’re gonna have the opposite problem that you’re gonna have too many students and everybody’s gonna want, but if we walked into your offices and said, Hey, you need to totally change the way you do businesses and radically change stuff. The immediate stuff is gonna be like, who are you talking to? And what do you know.

Dora Smith: Bill then outlined what he thinks are other major benefits of the EPICS program.  

William (Bill) Oakes: The other two big benefits is for me, I never had engineering really connected with how we can directly impact people and the community projects allow us to do that. And it allow the students to actually have a tangible benefit to others that has huge implications. As we look to diversify the engineering workforce, cuz there’s, if you go back to research, that’s 30 years old, Sue Ross or Elaine Seymour talked about gender women were leaving engineering cuz they wanted to do something that was connected with people or, or something that would make a difference. A lot of them were academically capable but said, you know what? The traditional kind of project stuff, isn’t what I’m interested in a way I wanna do something that’s gonna have an impact. If you look at some of the diversity work that young people coming out of the cities, if you can show, Hey, this is the kind of thing that could actually give back and relate to where you’ve come from. Those things can open doors over for some of the diversity things. So we’ve, we’ve, we’ve tracked that there retention benefits, we track more diverse students. So in a lot of ways it took a lot of these different things that I wanted to do in my academic career and go, okay, here’s a way to do a lot of those. And so that’s what our EPICS program is. And, and we’ve had opportunities to talk to other universities actually globally about how to do those.

Dora Smith: It’s incredible to think how EPICS can, and has, played a role in recruiting a more diverse group of engineering students from a multitude of backgrounds.

William (Bill) Oakes: But we’ve got more in a hundred high schools and we have more African American, Latino kids than white kids. And we have more young women than young men in these. I really believe if we wanted to unleash this interest in engineering and diversify. What I’ve seen is if you look at what they care about and say, you know what? We could use engineering to address that then that opens other doors. But what we do too much is let’s tell ’em why this picked my world, this gas turbine. Engine’s really, really exciting that doesn’t connect, but to go, you know, what are some of the things you, your family are worried about? It’s like, you know, you could use engineering to go do that. And, and we’ve, we’ve got stories like that. How, how we brought them in one of the young women who went on to chemical engineering and now works as an engineer.

We got her to say, as that she started her junior year. If you said, you’re going into engineering, her response, would’ve simply been, I don’t wanna drive a train. Why are you suggesting driving a train? But she got on a team that was working with a food bank and they looked at what the food bank needed and it turned out they didn’t have any way to coordinate services in, in the county. So they said they need a software system to help coordinate and for other people to be able to, you know, if they’re going to the cuz in a, in a rural area, you go do your big shopping. Once every few weeks, if I’m going there, it’s like what’s food bank need. Okay. So we need a website. We need ways to, to interconnect. So they got into a software project and she’s like, you know, this is actually kind of interesting.

So in her path, it it’s, I wanted to look at hunger. So we need a computing solution to address hunger in my community, which is not a normal mapping. Now she comes in and going, you know, this is kind of interesting, but she went into chemical engineering. So this is one of the other pieces is can you get them in as like, I think I’m interested in engineering, okay. Now let’s talk about the different types. And so the entry point was I wanna help the food bank to now I get interested in engineering. So now I pick a, a field not related to my project and now I’ve got a career love. Those are the kinds of paths that I think could unleash a, a flood into that.

Dora Smith: Grading in EPICS is different from what we’ve come to expect from the traditional learning experience. It’s set to mirror industry standards and is based on 5 criteria: accomplishments, process, reflective, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership, and communication. I asked Bill to expand on this a bit more.

William (Bill) Oakes: If I think about the way we’re grading, and again, I go back to what we’re trying to do is we call professional preparation is to look at what a performance review would look like. We also need to map on academic side. So, so it’s a, it’s a balance. But when we look at the activities, we go, okay, your accomplishments, what did we set out? So I mentioned earlier that our projects are not tied to the semester. So at the beginning of the semester, the students need to set goals for their team. And personally, so one of the criteria on assessment is how well did you achieve those goals? Now we also understand we’re getting students to set these goals. So often they’re a little unrealistic in some of the things that they do. So it it’s tracking the progress that they’ve made. And then if we’ve had to adjust the goals, as, as we went through, were they being diligent and were they working regularly?

The second thing it is on their ability to, to demonstrate their understanding and application of design cuz we’re design class. So their academic there’s learning around design. And really it’s one way I describe this is the accomplishments. Were you busy? And did you check things off to your goals and the design is, are we doing this in a systematic way that we’ve taught you? So are you following the right process as, as we do these critical and reflective thinking, this is fascinating because 20 years ago we wouldn’t use the word reflection in an engineering course. Now it’s pretty widely, but it’s demonstrating that they’re understanding what they’re doing. They’re understanding their customer, they’re understanding issues on a team. And so every week they’re writing a reflection which could be around their team. We use a model where, what did they learn? Why does the learning matter?

And then how are they going to change based on what they’ve learned and then similar to industry, how well they’re working on the team. We have a lot of leadership roles. So if students have a leadership role, how well have they met the job description for that role? Slight aside, we’ve had to go through some tweaks cuz early on the rubric, the evaluation process we use benefited if you had a leadership role <laugh> and so we’ve had to say we we’ve tweaked it to say, okay, based on the role you had on your team, how well did you achieve that role? So if you were a leader that was, but if, if, if you’re a follower and then the final one, it is communication and it’s oral written formal and informal. So amongst their team, how well they’re communicating with us, we do two formal presentations.

We do informal meetings with our partner and then there’s things that they write. So we don’t grade reports per se, but we evaluate the reports on how, where they’re communicating and, and iterate through that. So those are the, the five criteria. So the overall process is we make them twice a semester present the evidence that they’ve achieved. These again, similar to what you do on a performance appraisal. When you put forward and say, Hey, here’s here are my accomplishments for the year. We, we try to model that at the middle of semester, we provide them feedback, written feedback and areas of improvement have a discussion that if they wanna improve here, hear ways to improve and, and hear grades that are still possible. So that’s the evaluation.

Dora Smith: I asked Bill, from an industry perspective, what are the differences between students that hail from the EPICS program and those that come from a more traditional educational setting?

William (Bill) Oakes: We actually interviewed some graduates. And the big thing that came out was they looked at this, that the practices that we, we did simulated what they would do later. And they made more of the mistakes with us and fewer out in industry. So some of them reported it’s like, you know, I was getting promoted faster, but I think a lot of it was just, I knew how to do these things. I knew how to do a design review. I knew that we’d had to be customer centered. You know, I, I could come in, I could coordinate the team and they reported, they were given more responsibility cuz they knew how to do some of these things. It also came out that the projects the students were doing, they didn’t think were gonna map exactly what they did to industry. But when they got to industry, they realized, wow, I’ve, I’ve kind of done this before.

I know how to do this. So I don’t need as much direction or I can propose a, a solution over there already because I’ve made some of the mistakes and some of my, you know, cutting my teeth and making some of the most mistakes. We had one student that talked, she was one of these that she said, I find myself getting more responsibility than my peers, which made her feel good and, and a little stressed out. But they had a case where they had a customer that was unhappy. And they sent her to see if she could save the contract. And she said she was very, very stressed cuz she understood the stakes that people could lose their jobs and you know, their financial implications. And she said, I’ve never done this before. But as she got into the relationship, she goes, wait, I have done this cuz she was a team leader with a school where the teacher and principal were not happy with what the team had done the previous semester.

And so she had to have a meeting with them, listen to what they had, develop an action plan, go back and have her team implement that action plan and get in the good graces of the school. And she said, this is like, that’s exactly what we did with the customer. We listened to ’em we identified actionable things that I could bring back to my team. We demonstrated that we listened to ’em we fixed, we saved the contract, but she said, I never would’ve thought working in that elementary school was gonna prepare me out for here, but it was those experiences. And some of that reflection are the kinds of things of going, you know, how might this apply and, and to get them into, into that mindset. So that’s, that’s how I believe. I, I think they’re a little bit more ready cuz they’ve had more of these experiences and can take a little bit more initiative. And, and I, that was when I think back to my time at GE, that was a big thing. Like how can we reduce this onboarding and get them up and functioning.

Dora Smith: A great obstacle faced when operating community initiatives is that communities often view the people running these initiatives as white van people that is, they harbored out about these outside’s true intentions and are pessimistic as to whether they can impact meaningful sustainable change.

William (Bill) Oakes: I’ll start with a white van characteristic cuz it’s one of the things that I’ve learned is what we look at when we partner with community, we really gotta look at them as true partners. And what can we learn from each other that too often we as engineers or we as academics are like, oh we got the solution. We’ll go tell you what you need to do. And there are things that we can learn from them and we’re not looking at what expertise we have, which by the way, in all this, I look at how you translate this to industry. And I tell our students, when you go out, the people, men and women on the factory floor know way more about what you’re going to do. And if you can build relationships in that and getting tap into their expertise, if they respect you and are comfortable to share their ideas, it’s gonna make you a better engineer.

And so on that community side, it’s the same thing. One of the relationships has impacted me personally the most. And it’s an ongoing is with the Lakota people out in South Dakota. So we’re working with the glow Lakota on pine Ridge reservation. And they use a term of white van they’ve referred to summer as the white van season. And I was like, what’s that? I said, yeah, well it’s and, and they actually talked about white van people. It’s it’s people that usually arrive in white vans, but they’ve identified. They wanna help needy people that are somehow deficient they’ve figured out what these people need without talking to them. They show up at their scheduled time for a period of time is convenient for them. And then when their agenda’s done, they leave and in talking to the communities, their impact is very limited and in, and sometimes there unintended things that that short period of time actually can drain resources out or create issues.

I talk to one mother who was a single mother and so his son hesitant with male relationships and one of these groups came in and really connected to somebody. And then he went back for the next week’s program and it was a different group. He’s like, where is, you know, and, and came back. And she said, I had to process with him, no, this wasn’t somebody else that had abandoned him. And you know, so it’s well intended, but what the communities really need is can we walk together over a long period of time? And can we do that in a way where we’re looking at, what can we learn from them and what can they learn from us and what can we do together? And as I said, I think it’s a mindset that are gonna make our engineers and other professionals better people, that it doesn’t matter what your degree or where you came from or what company you work with is we can really learn from, from each other.

And it’s a value that we try to have in our program. We’re conscious of the process that we use as well as the deliverable and looking for opportunities that we can add value. So for partnering with the school, we may do activities to learn about the, the children, but maybe that helps out the teacher and some of these things. So that’s one of the big lessons with the community. And I, I think our field is not, you know, it causes us in the academic world to think past semester mindsets that how do I create structures to be able to take projects across semesters or years if I need to do it and to do that in a sustainable way. And, and that’s, that’s what we’ve heard over and over again from the community. The thing I love about that, again, it’s more similar to industry, you know, in industry, everything doesn’t happen in 15-week chunks.

So I’ve now got shorter or longer term things. It allows the students to come in and they might pick up somebody else’s and now we’ve got new information and maybe I need to take it off in, in a slightly different direction. The other part on the longer term relationship is the students. The students are the best teachers to their peers. And when they start to, to learn about partner in the relationships, they pass that along to the other students. And the final piece, and this comes from the Lakota is they expect us as engineers or academics to be in for a short period of time. Something that we’re gaining from and we’re gonna disappear. What I’ve heard from them is they kind of feel used. It’s when it’s convenient, I want to come in and engage and it’s not really, can we really do things to make an impact and that deepening the relationship allows them to share things on how we could have an impact with them. And I think it’s, it’s just appreciating them. It is. It’s respecting them as fellow educators and as people. And the white van analogy is something that I’ve incorporated into all my faculty development lectures and let the Lakota, and I share that with them as far as here’s something that you’ve taught me, that I’m not teaching people in several different countries to honor them.

Dora Smith: Given this community skepticism, I wondered if there were any successful EPICS community partnerships that Bill could speak to and what it was that drove the success. 

William (Bill) Oakes: So a lot of them have been smaller. If I look at the Lakota we’re, we’re working on food sovereignty and a lot of the structural issues are because we’ve historically move them off of land. That would be productive. You know? So there’s a lot of history and, and, and structure there. We’re currently looking at smaller, like starter greenhouses that could be used in different communities to extend growing season. It’s really interesting cuz during the pandemic, right, we’ve just created so much Plexiglas. Like what do you do with that? Well, you could turn Plexiglas into small scale greenhouses that could be used out in communities, but now there’s issues of who owns this and how do we get it and logistics and, and some of those, it’s a challenge to work with undergraduates to get that home run. But I’ll tell you that when I think about how do you take small steps and make a big impact?

I’ll talk about a friend and colleague. Who’s a hero to me at Louisiana state, Mary Beth Lima, she’s now head of biological engineering, but she runs a class that every year they partner with a school to develop a playground. And she said, her goal is before she retires, she wants every child in a Baton Rouge area to have access to a safe playground. Now is that gonna fundamentally change the world? I think it, her students that have gone through that process are gonna contribute to make the world a better place. She is tangibly leaving the Baton Rouge area. I think if we’re going to do these really make the world better. The way you do that is you get a lot of people doing a lot of small things. Maybe we get that home run. I’ve heard, I don’t know how many presentations on student projects that have come out for solution commercializing that have developed a solution of clean water in two weeks, I’m still taking a group of students to we’re working with a community in Rwanda, cuz they don’t have safe drinking water.

So in some ways I think we’ve kind of solved the solution, but it doesn’t apply everywhere. And there’s still local things that, that we need to come up with and they’re things. So we’ve come up with devices for adults and children with disabilities that have allowed them to increase the mobility. We’ve we’ve got a team that’s working with a young, a boy, I think he’s eight or nine. Now doesn’t have a use of his arms. And they’re just things like, how does he feed himself? How does he dress himself? And, and some of those things. So I like to think of those that is changing the world. And then there’s the question of how do we scale those and the other and that’s part of the ecosystem, but those are, are, are some of the examples kind of in mindset that, that we’re doing things in small ways and within EPICS and, and other parts of this field, you’ve got senior design projects all over that are essentially doing the same thing over and over again.

And so some of this on a community side, can we create structures that allow students to share and make connections? You know, you look at us, it’s like, oh, we need a database or whatever. And, and there have been dozens designed, but they don’t get used. Like how do we share these things? How do we, you know, it’s almost using some of this crowdsourcing mindsets unleashing some students to, to make connections, but how do you start to connect across folks to say, instead of we’re gonna start from scratch, let’s start with that design that somebody had. Can we improve it? And can we put it back out for other cus it, it will make more sophisticated projects for the students, more challenges, opportunities for impact. And so those are some of the structures. I think going back, you know, how do you, how do you build some of this workout?

It it’s, how do we create some of those structures to do some of those things could, could have some great benefits. We’ve got a team that’s working with, with students in India on how to create mobile science labs for rural schools. And that’s applicable here, but you look at schools to say, you know, we we’d love to have state of the art science equipment, but every community can’t afford that. So maybe you start to create mobile systems that like rural areas or, you know, underserved schools could share. And it’s interesting going, okay, what could go there? What technology can you bring in? How do we support the things there? There’s a lot of engineering that goes into that. There are opportunities to collaborate and education, but it’s also a team that’s working across. You know, you’ve got a multinational team where you’ve got students working about the context here and the, the context there, there some incredible opportunities.

One of our long-term partners is habitat for humanity. And I, I think if you get into the community development space, we’ve worked with them on like sustainable building practices. So how can we translate and create models that translate it like into a habitat context? When we started a sustainable home design, the students were like, oh, it’s gonna have wind turbines and solar panels and we’re gonna make everything out of bamboo. And they’re like, okay, but these are built by volunteers and it’s gotta be something we can replicate. And our project was interesting cuz it scaled way back. And I think in some ways the students were disappointed that it wasn’t as flashy, but what they did became the standard within our area for all the builds. And then they did training across the state. So they actually moved the entire state building practices a little bit more sustainably.

So that’s when it comes. And I think we look for that huge success. And sometimes it’s like, can we move a lot of people a little bit for those? And that project was fascinating because the students were in a, they met the homeowner for their model home and she was their age. She was a single mom who was their age and it flipped how they talked. It wasn’t the house they referred to her by name. <Laugh> like, it was her house. Yeah, we got, and they met the boy. So they started it humanized the, the piece. But those were some things and we could talk for hours about favorite projects, but I think those are our areas. And you know, I repeat something I said before the young people today are amazing. I worry, we’re really not preparing them, but you gotta give them something they’re interested in. And these kinds of things, the students, when they get interested in these, they just take things and run with them and do some pretty amazing thing.

Dora Smith: To wrap up our conversation, I asked Bill to break down how EPICS has changed and re-molded his outlook on academia and engineering.

William (Bill) Oakes: It totally turned it on it on its head. As I said, I didn’t view the community engagement as the answer to so many questions. And every time I turn around and I look at what are we trying to do in engineering education, academia in general, prepare students from industry. I’m like, wow, I see a map for those experiences. It has convinced me that we, what we need to do in education is get out of the here’s the individual courses and give students more experiences where then we can draw the learning out of that. It’s turned industry preparation on its head to that, the idea that prepare students for your company, they don’t have to do anything that looked like your products. And in some ways it, we, as, as educators need to provide students with fundamental skills that then they can apply. And it’s just interesting how we don’t think of what those fundamental skills for career are wise.

We quickly go to calculus is a fundamental skill. Nobody likes taking calculus. Well, few do most don’t, but nobody would say get rid of calculus out of engineering, cuz it’s one of those fundamental skills. But then when we say, what is the fun, what are the fundamental skills to be a professional and you know, there will be outcomes and those things. And then how do we make sure that they’re learning those fundamental professional as well as technical skills and create environments where they can do that to assess that I I’m just convinced that that’s where our field is slowly moving and needs to move faster for that. And the final thing, it it’s turned my thinking around it’s really reminded me. I’ve got industry experience, teaching experience three degrees in higher education. And I don’t know a whole lot and need to learn from others. Many of whom have no degree. And, and I think that that’s a, a life lesson, you know, how do we learn to listen to others and learn for others? And I think that’s just a good thing. I, I know it’s good training for engineers, but I, I just think it makes us all better people. If we can learn that.

Dora Smith: Lifelong learning

William (Bill) Oakes: And, and humility.

Dora Smith: If you’re interested in learning more about Purdue’s EPICS program, head over to Stay tuned to Innovation In The Classroom wherever you do podcasts. I’m Dora Smith. Thanks so much for listening!


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