Purdue ME students fill their lockdown summer with real-world research

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused chaos for many students, removing any chance they had to gain work experience over the summer. The School of Mechanical Engineering saw this need and created the Summer Projects program, giving students the chance to perform meaningful research, and get some financial assistance along the way.



“We saw that many students who had offers for summer internships or co-ops had those offers rescinded,” said Eckhard Groll, the William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of Mechanical Engineering.  “The faculty and staff had a brainstorming session in April, and quickly decided to do something about it.”

Faculty and staff organized a broad selection of real-world research and technical service projects -- from using acoustics to direct autonomous robots, to using the video game Minecraft to teach solid mechanics principles to high school students.   If the students completed their project, they would each receive $1000.

“The desire for a program like this was clear,” said Julia King, Director of the Office of Industrial Experience.  “We had hundreds of students from all over Purdue asking to participate.  We even had requests from students of other universities who wanted in!” In total, 169 mechanical engineering students spent the 10-week session participating in 32 research projects with faculty, and 5 technical services projects with staff.

“I was one of the students who lost an internship opportunity,” said Joseph Boyer, a senior.  “But then this email came talking about Summer Projects, and it was an awesome opportunity.”  Joseph was part of a team studying fluid mechanics under associate professor Arezoo Ardekani, specifically focusing on the airborne transmission of COVID-19, and how personal protective equipment can adapt to reduce the risk. “More than anything, this project has shown that students are motivated to learn, whatever the circumstances,” he said.  “For the School of Mechanical Engineering to give us that opportunity this summer, and even supply a little bit of income, has been an amazing experience.”

Teryn Azpell had a job lined up in London as part of GEARE, a mechanical engineering program that integrates overseas work experiences.  “Both my study abroad and work abroad were cut short,” she said, “and then this came up at the last minute.  It was exactly what I needed to gain experience going into my senior year, and I’m so thankful.”

“Getting a summer job was really hard in the wake of COVID,” said senior Joseph Navarra. “So the question was, ‘What can I do to build up my engineering skills?’  These Summer Projects were perfect.”  Navarra’s team redesigned a mechanism of Purdue ME’s wind tunnel, allowing more precise positioning of the probes inside. “I was actually given more responsibility with this project than any company would have given me as a summer intern,” he said.

Thanks in part to a donation from alumnus Steve Cittadine (BSME ’83) and his wife Kay, the school was also able to offer students a $1000 stipend to ease the sting of lost work time.  “My Purdue degree has shown me that you get out of it what you put into it,” said Cittadine.  “These students not only poured their heart and soul into these projects, but they also showed perseverance in tough circumstances, which will really benefit them as they begin their careers.”

“This was also a learning experience for us in the faculty,” said Song Zhang, Assistant Head for Experiential Learning.  “But my colleagues and I have been so impressed with the response.  In fact, many students plan to continue their research in the fall semester, including three of my own summer students.”

Associate professor David Cappelleri’s students worked on microrobots and robotic surgical tools.  “Many students had no experience coming in, so they had to learn quickly,” said Cappelleri.  “But they were able to successfully collaborate with each other, and with my grad students, even though everyone was scattered across the country.  With all the progress they made in this research, I expect all of them to eventually lead to publication.”

Ajay Malshe, R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, had his students build digital models of bio-inspired structures like butterfly wings, snake skin, and rice leaves. “This is an unprecedented time because of COVID-19, and being a student right now is not easy,” said Malshe.  “But I’m so proud of how our school stepped up to help.  And the students are amazing.  Six students in eight weeks did what would normally take a whole semester to accomplish!”

“I want to thank all of the faculty and staff that helped bring this together,” said Groll, “especially the team of Song Zhang, Julia King, Todd Nelson, Greg Jensen, Teddy Sergesketter, and Jeremy Wampler.  We have shown that whatever the circumstances, we are the Boilermakers, and nothing’s going to stop us from moving the world forward.”

Writer: Jared Pike, jaredpike@purdue.edu, 765-496-0374

Source: Julia King, juliaking@purdue.edu, 765-494-5702