In a nondescript building on the Virginia Tech campus, students don’t just sit and learn about engineering through lecture. They do it.
They build engines and electronic components. Wings and propellers of miniature airplanes are created. Race cars, submersibles, and intricate miniature bridges all are at the center of brainstorming and hands-on work.
The students volunteer long hours, often at night after classrooms go dark, and get their hands dirty. And they say they love the work.
These are the opportunities offered at the Joseph F. Ware Jr. Advanced Engineering Laboratory, tucked away in a former laundry used by the corps of cadets and university faculty. The facility is the cornerstone of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s efforts to provide undergraduate students with a hands-on experience that will better prepare them to enter the workforce.
“The Ware Lab is a place where I can be creative,” said Kimberly Wenger, a senior in mechanical engineering from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who serves as student leader of Virginia Tech’s Blind Driver Challenge team. “It is a chance for all students to get their heads out of their books and apply all the ideas that professors teach us in a real-world application. It is a place where you can learn skills necessary for your future. You can make mistakes and learn from them.”
Fellow senior Ben Langford, from Clarksville, Va., said the Ware Lab’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers team is what drew him to major in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. Langford had earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and applied economics in 2003. Since 2007, he has been working on a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“The computer lab, machine shop and welding shop we have available to us rival the resources of almost every other school we compete with. The Ware Lab allows the undergraduate student to get out of theory mode and into real-life mode before actually leaving college for the real world,” Langford said.
Reliance on team-based efforts helps drive the Ware Lab’s success, said facility manager Dewey Spangler, himself a faculty member and part-time doctoral student.
“Students have to appreciate each other’s abilities,” he said. “Because of that, the Ware Lab emulates the real world of working engineers more so than probably any other activity or endeavor within their academic training.”
Companies have taken note. Organizations such as MathWorks, National Instruments,Volvo, Siemens, and Lockheed Martin sponsor the Ware Lab. Many have donated money and equipment, sent representatives to tour the lab, and mentored students on such projects as the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT) and the Solar Decathlon Team.
“We try and get as many corporate people in here that are hiring our students,” Spangler said. “They see the students working in the bays and … it really makes a big impression.”
Software developer MathWorks is a regular Ware Lab supporter. Dan Lluch, a member of MathWorks educational technical marketing team, visits the lab often. Lluch earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech in 1995 and 1998, respectively.
“Students being able to learn about the design process, from initial design to implementation, parallels what engineers do in industry to change the world every day,” Lluch said, adding that holding such responsibility is a rare opportunity for university students.
Lynn Gantt, a graduate student from Yorktown, Va., said he has seen undergraduate HEVT team members take advantage of such opportunities as part of the EcoCAR Challenge, where team members are retrofitting a donated car by General Motors to operate with better fuel efficiency. “We have an audience that knows nothing about our vehicle and it gives us the chance to educate people about hybrid technologies,” Gantt said, adding that many supportive companies have recruited students from his team upon graduation.
The recruitment works both ways.
Potential freshman repeatedly say the Ware Lab was their favorite part of the campus tour, Spangler said. For many, it’s the deciding factor. One family told Spangler they were looking at 20 potential universities for their son. “They told me that we were No. 18, and that they had no need to go to 19 or 20.”
Their son is now a mechanical engineering major who works in the Ware Lab.
Born and raised in Blacksburg, Va., Ware graduated from Virginia Tech in 1937 with a degree in mechanical/aeronautical engineering and later obtained his master’s degree in the same tract from California Institute of Technology.
He primarily worked at Lockeed Martin as a fight test engineer and then department manager of engineering on the “Skunk Works,” the company’s Advanced Development Programs. There, a line of famous military jets were produced, including the U-2 Spy Plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor.
In 1998, Ware and his wife, Jenna, made a significant financial contribution to the Virginia Tech College of Engineering to outfit a 10,000-square-foot space — formerly a laundry — for undergraduate student design teams.
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