Launching its goal of making a long-term investment to the School of Engineering, the Rice Engineering Alumni (REA) dedicated $30,000 for renovating the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s internal combustion engine (ICE) lab. That gift is part of a much larger $50,000 pledge to improve mechanical engineering labs over the next three years.
“ICE—not frozen water, but much more important: the Internal Combustion Engine,converting energy into meaningful motion—that’s what MECHE’s do!” said Ned Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering. “And now we can up our game in the MECH undergraduate lab, thanks to the great gift from the REA."
“Having the IC engine fills a big void,” agreed Laura Schaefer, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I am super excited about this. Parts of our mechanical engineering lab are out of date, and this will help to rectify that.”
That point was brought home to both Schaefer and the REA last spring. Mechanical Engineering students hosted a town hall meeting to voice their concerns about the department. Among their concerns was a lack of space for tackling hands-on projects. At some of the lab’s stations, as many as eight students would be gathered around an experiment, with only two of them actively working on the project as the others looked on. It was a source of frustration.
Enter the REA. The alumni organization has for years donated money for much-needed equipment in the School, and has supplied scholarship and sponsorship dollars for engineering students and design teams. But the group wanted a longer-term investment strategy, identifying capital projects that would improve the engineering experience at Rice. At last spring’s annual End-of-Year Picnic, Wendy Hoenig ’86, now immediate past president of the REA, said students approached her and other REA members about the MECH department.
“They were very concerned about being one of the largest majors yet having the labs in the oldest and worst shape. They had a good story and approached us in a very mature way to bring the issue to light,” she said.
So the REA Board of Directors tasked Hoenig and Adam Gottlieb ’03 to meet with Schaefer to discuss the areas of greatest need. In addition to the IC Engine lab, Schaefer offered two other labs that would be helpful: a power plant lab that would incorporate HVAC and power generation experiments, and a robotics/mechatronics lab. Of the three proposals, the IC Engine lab proved to be the most practical since it can be completed in one full year. The REA has pledged a three-year, $50,000 commitment to MECH; following the completion of the IC Engine lab, the group will tackle the H-VAC and robotics/mechatronics needs, with gifts next year and the year after.
The $30,000 approved or this year will be used to purchase a new internal combustion engine and renovate the existing lab space in MECH 117, creating a better working environment for students to conduct experiments.
“A lot of our students have interest in aerospace and automobile industries,” said Schaefer. “So, having an understanding of how engines work is of particular importance. A lab like this gives students the opportunity to see how fuel to air ratios and compression ratios work in terms of engine efficiency. They can see how adjusting the timing belt can affect the engine.”
Schaefer said she can see the space being used as a unit in a mechanical engineering lab class, where students can conduct experiments on flow rates, temperature and clearance. And the creation and renovation of the lab space will be an opportunity for students to see how capital projects work.
“Some of our students will be actively involved in the project,” said Schaefer. “They’ll work with us on what we should purchase, how it should be implemented and they’ll be able to learn about working within a budget and building out a space.”
“The REA will stay very involved throughout the project,” said Hoenig. “We will provide the funds, help with project planning, and coach the students doing the project. We want this to be a strong connection point for students and alums.”