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Student Life: Innovative Classes

Mixing it up for innovation

RCELeng315_01Four Rice University engineering students have found unlikely inspiration in an African beetle that turns morning fog into life-sustaining water.

“Only one percent of the earth’s water is drinkable,” said Adrian Yao, a sophomore in materials science and economics. “We need to come up with cost-efficient ways to get fresh water.”

One solution is to take a lesson from the Namib Desert beetle of southwestern Africa, an insect whose forewings are covered with minute bumps. The tips of the bumps are hydrophilic (water attracting), and the sides hydrophobic (water repelling). In the morning when the fog is heavy, the beetles stand on their heads and the condensed water vapor on their backs slides into their mouths.

In their presentation, “Biomimicry to Create a Water-Harvesting Surface,” Yao and three other students outlined how they borrowed the beetle’s strategy by coating a bumpy aluminum sheet with two polymers—one hydrophilic, the other hydrophobic. They placed the sheet over boiling water, tipped it and watched the water steadily drip.

“This is an innovative, elegant solution to a real-world problem. It brings together two different fields, entomology and materials science,” said one of Yao’s fellow team members, Stephanie Tzouanas, a sophomore in bioengineering.

Both are among the nineteen students enrolled in a new class at Rice, Engineering 315, “Leading Teams and Innovation,” started this semester by the instructor, David Niño.

“We’re talking about something that can be called intersectional ideas. Each group comes up with an engineering innovation that’s the result of a creative collaboration between different disciplines,” said Niño, Professor in the Practice of Engineering Leadership at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL).

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The new class, Niño said, is a first for Rice: “What we want to do is prepare students for engineering leadership roles while they are working in creative project teams. There’s a culture specific to working in these sorts of teams and we think Rice engineering students should learn about it early.” 

The other members of Yao’s team were Matthew Diasio, a senior in mechanical engineering and physics; and Albert Riedel, sophomore in mechanical engineering. Nicole Van Den Heuvel, director of the Rice Center for Career Development, said of their efforts and of Niño’s innovative approach:

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“This sort of class helps Rice students develop leadership and teamwork skills, which gives them a competitive advantage in today's job market. These two attributes top the list of what employers look for in a resume.”

As examples of intersectional innovation, other groups of students in Niño’s class looked at the smartphone as developed by Apple, Microsoft’s Kinect, roller-coasters and the hook-and-loop fastener, Velcro.

“One way to learn how to lead is to experience what it’s like to deal with challenging leadership situations,” Niño said. “In this class, we turn students loose on real-world situations and see what they can do. So far, they’ve come up with some pretty innovative ideas, things I had never thought about nor seen in non-engineering classes.”