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UK Engineering Students Challenged To Create 'A World That Works'

Tom Godell

Got back pain? Call an engineer! From biomedical engineering to solar cars to aerospace, the UK College of Engineering is challenging students across the Commonwealth to “create a world that works”. Rudolph Buchheit became the 11th dean of the college in July 2018, and he sat down with WUKY’s Tom Godell recently to discuss some of the college’s recent accomplishments and plans for the future.


GODELL: Training students to solve monumental engineering challenges -- today on UK Perspectives. I'm Tom Godell. From NASCAR to Nigeria, students at the University of Kentucky's College of Engineering are making significant contributions to their communities and the world. Last July the college welcomed its 11th Dean, Rudy Buchheit, who comes to us from Ohio State University. And we're pleased to have him with us today. Welcome, Rudy.

BUCHHEIT: Great to be here. Thanks, Tom. Appreciate the opportunity.

GODELL: What attracted you to Lexington and UK's College of Engineering?

BUCHHEIT: To me, it was a place that was familiar. It's a big land-grant flagship R1 environment. That's the environment I'm comfortable with. I grew up, so to speak, in my academic career in that environment, so it was a natural transition for me.

GODELL: Your college's website talks about "creating a world that works". What do you mean by that?

BUCHHEIT: That's our launching point to help people begin to think and ultimately understand the role that engineers play in creating a world which we can all contribute to and benefit fully from. So just think about what surrounds you and I right now and lets us communicate with a broad range of people. It's all enabled by things that engineers do and know and help us engage with.

GODELL: Just before the beginning of the year, you told the Herald-Leader that there's a surge in engineering enrollment nationally. And then you announced your plan to significantly increase enrollment in your college to over 6000 students and hire almost 70 new faculty over the next five years. Pretty ambitious project. How's that coming along?

BUCHHEIT: It's coming along pretty well. So this year we set out to recruit about 15 new faculty. We launched 20 recruitments to try and get to 15 faculty. The search committees and the department chairs who are responsible for bringing in the candidates, interviewing them, vetting them, seeing how they fit did a spectacular job. We're at 19 new recruits. So we overshot our goal, but that's a good thing because that makes us that much more ready for what we hope is going to be a big surge of students coming our way.

GODELL: It's a good problem to have.

BUCHHEIT: It's a good problem to have.

GODELL: UK's graduation ceremony took place earlier this month and your commencement speaker was Sofia Gonzalez Schuler from Venezuela. Tell us a little bit about her.

BUCHHEIT: Sofia is now an alumna of chemical and materials engineering. She is a chemical engineer, and she's just a fantastic representative for her class of graduates. She is from Venezuela, which is a place that has some challenges. I watched her this year go through a rather challenging curriculum with a great deal of grace and composure. She's a fantastic student. She's on her way to Northwestern to pursue a PhD. So I think that the success that she had, the way that she went about her business is really emblematic of all of our students at the University. And I'm so impressed with them. They deserve an enormous amount of respect for dealing with the challenges we put in front of them and then turning that into what's going to be the foundation for successful professional careers.

GODELL: We tend to think of engineering as a man's job. And your college has really done a lot to bring women into the field; minorities as well. What are some of the activities going on this summer? I noticed a couple of things online called Go Girl and Women In Engineering Summer Camp. Tell us about those.

BUCHHEIT: Yes. So, you know, engineering being a man's job: that's our socially reinforced stereotype. We all have that; men and women alike. But it's really changing pretty quickly, and it has been for a few years. The way we are moving, we operate at several different levels. So certainly the programs that you're talking about this summer, to try and engage young women. So these are middle schoolers and high schoolers in particular. We're trying to expose them to the field and help them visualize themselves and what they might do, should they elect to pursue a career path. So that's just one thing that we're doing. We obviously spend a lot of time thinking about role models for women, for women students. So in these faculty recruits that we had, a significant fraction of our new faculty are women and persons of color. So about 45% of that group coming in is diverse in the sense that the women are coming from underrepresented groups in engineering. So we have to operate at a lot of different levels to make progress in this area.

GODELL: The College of Engineering Solar Car Team celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year. How did that program get started and what's ahead for them?

BUCHHEIT: Yeah, the solar car team is absolutely a point of pride for us. It's been successful for a long period of time. It's a great way to help teach hands-on elements of engineering, things that support what kids are learning in the classroom, but putting tools in their hands, giving them problems that are relevant and germane to what they're going to be doing as early career professionals. So this summer they have competitions in front of them. So that usually involves, through the academic year or year past, they made modifications to the design in the vehicle. It's then inspected by third parties, it's vetted for competition, and then they engage in the competition. So that'll happen over the span of about three weeks starting in the beginning of July, supported by the current team students.

GODELL: And that's a long competition. It's several hundred miles.

BUCHHEIT: Yeah, if you qualify for that part of the competition, it's a very big deal. It challenges engineering thinking and engineering design, no doubt about it.

GODELL: We've known for a long time that engineers can fix just about any problem, but I have to admit I was a little surprised when I looked at your website and found lower back pain on that list. And it turns out that your biomedical engineering faculty member Tom Hedman has taken this on. So what can you tell us about his research? And maybe talk a little bit about the field of biomedical engineering too.

BUCHHEIT: Yeah, that is a fascinating phenomenon. But it's absolutely the case that engineers are making the tools and helping to design the therapies that clinicians use. And so we have a biomedical engineering program which is about to launch an undergraduate degree program in biomedical engineering. Professor Hedman is on our faculty. He's a very active researcher. He's also an innovator and an entrepreneur. He started a company around the technology that we're talking about, which is really aimed at a chemical therapy for strengthening collagen-based material, specifically discs in the lower spine, stabilizing them mechanically through chemical treatment to reduce lower back pain, which if you read about that, you will find it afflicts all of us, a large number of us, at some point in time in our lives. So it's a big deal that he's helping with in an important way.

GODELL: You mentioned Professor Hedman's company. Is entrepreneurship part of the education process for these young engineering students?

BUCHHEIT: Yes. So all of our students are exposed to the idea that entrepreneurial activity is an avenue for them. Some fraction of our students respond to that naturally; they have that inclination in them. And so then we have a more active pathway that they can pursue. A lot of that is carried out in conjunction with the Gatton School of Business and Economics. So there's the Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship. Our students are heavily engaged. They do lots of great things: Shark Tank competitions, hackathons, all kinds of activities that are sort of outside the curriculum, for supporting entrepreneurship. And then for students who are really into it, they can take classes that help support them if they choose to get right into small business creation built around knowledge or innovation.

GODELL: Your College is a very big one. You have a number of different programs. What is it? 11, I think, different programs in the college?


GODELL: We can't obviously touch on all of them today, but what are some things that maybe we haven't discussed that you'd like to talk about?

BUCHHEIT: So there are some things that are happening that I think are important for people to understand. So we are a land-grant institution. We have a responsibility to support the economy in Kentucky. And so we're pivoting to do that. I would point as one example to moves that we're making in the direction of aerospace engineering. So it turns out that Kentucky is an aerospace manufacturing state. There are significant supply chains that support defense and aerospace.

GODELL: I did not know that.

BUCHHEIT: It's the largest export business in Kentucky: over $12 billion per year. It engages 19,000 employees across the state. It's significant. So we've gotten an undergraduate certificate program in aerospace engineering and we're moving toward degree programs: bachelor's, master's and PhD in aerospace engineering. We already have that expertise on the mechanical engineering faculty. So that's the place that that will nucleate. I also mentioned biomedical engineering. That's a very big area for us, because human health and healthcare delivery is very big at Kentucky. And there's absolutely a role that we can play as a partner for a lot of the activities across campus. So that happens not just in biomedical engineering. We have activities in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering and chemical and materials engineering as well. So we're pivoting to support the economy, I think is the headline in that space.

GODELL: Thank you very much. Our guest has been Rudy Buchheit, Dean of UK's College of Engineering. You can hear our entire UK Perspectives conversation at WUKY.org. For 91.3 WUKY, I'm Tom Godell.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Tom Godell has been the General Manager of WUKY since April 2004. Earlier in his career he served as Senior Producer with WBHM in Birmingham AL, Program Director of WLRH in Huntsville AL, and Associate Director of Broadcasting for Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He is a dog lover, cycling enthusiast, second baseman (willing to play anytime, anywhere), and music fanatic. His writings on music have appeared in the American Record Guide, Fanfare magazine, the All Music Guide, and RCA Records.