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Engineering Week feature series: ‘Engineering touches every corner of your life’

Engineering Week

Cadet 2nd Class Allyson Burba shows off a camera used in the prototype of a wheelchair she and other cadets at the Air Force Academy are designing that will be controlled by eye movement, Feb, 22, 2021. Engineering Week, Feb. 21-27, 2021 is designed to highlight research advancements Academy cadets and faculty make for the Air Force and Space Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Seth Stang)

Engineering Week 2021

Cadet 2nd Class Catherine McAlister, a mechanical engineering major at the U.S. Air Force Academy, takes a breather after parachuting into the drop zone near the Academy's flightline. McAlister is one of many cadets participating in Engineering Week at the school, Feb. 21-27, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

Engineering Week

James Pocock, a civil engineer professor who teaches architectural design, construction management and sustainable engineering courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said the Academy's engineering curriculum bring real-world experiences into the classroom. He and other faculty members and cadets, are joining forces to highlight science, technology, engineering and math – STEM – research and education to spotlight National Engineers Week, Feb. 21-27. (Courtesy photo)

Engineering Week

Left: James Pocock, a civil engineering professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, teaches architectural design, construction management and sustainable engineering courses. He's seen here with cadets in a lab in Fairchild Hall at the school. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Cadets and faculty are joining forces to highlight Air Force Academy science, technology, engineering and math – STEM – research and education to spotlight National Engineers Week, Feb. 21-27.

National Engineers Week is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers.

“Engineering week is incredibly important to the Academy,” said Cadet 2nd Class Allyson Burba, an electrical and computer engineering major. “Before coming to the Academy, I’m not sure I could have given a real definition of what engineering was but now I can define it. Engineering is taking that foundational knowledge of STEM and applying it to create solutions to human needs.”

“Knowing the road ahead – the research opportunities - the projects to work on and the applications of what we learn – makes suffering through high school algebra just a bit easier. The more we can show students how much they can accomplish in engineering, the better,” she said.

Col. Cory Cooper, head of Academy’s mechanical engineering department, said “Engineering Week is a terrific opportunity to highlight the effort of cadets and faculty in several engineering disciplines.”

“The Academy’s engineering programs are all fully accredited and produce highly prepared and inventive officers for the Air and Space Forces.

“This week spotlights a few of our fantastic cadets, faculty members and cutting-edge projects,” he said. “Our engineers have an impact across the Defense Department and tech-transfer realm in solving human problems and improving workforce needs across the globe. I'm very proud of our cadets and faculty and the work they accomplish here on a daily basis."

The National Society of Professional Engineers founded Engineers Week in 1951, coinciding with President George Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday as his survey work led him to be considered the country’s “first engineer.”

In Burba’s case, that work is creating a low-cost, motorized wheelchair controlled by eye movement, a project she has been researching for two years.

“This could someday provide autonomy to people unable to operate their own wheelchair using traditional means, like a joystick,” she said.

Burba’s capstone team will present their research to the faculty before the semester ends in May and next year, as a senior cadet, she’ll begin a similar capstone research project.

“We’re going to try controlling a robotic arm using a gaze alone,” she said

Burba is excited about the potential for National Engineers Week to grab the attention of young women at the Academy who have yet to declare their majors.

“To young women anywhere, I say STEM is for problem solvers like you and here’s why: STEM touches every corner of your life, from the car you drive to labs researching COVID-19, the phone you used to Facetime your friend yesterday and rockets carrying astronauts to space,” she said. “STEM is the answer to so many questions out there and we need your voices and perspective in the conversation.”

Burba said the possibilities of STEM-related careers at the Academy are “boundless.”

“Don’t be afraid to explore, ask questions and seek out opportunities to lean more,” she said.

Civil Engineering: Bringing Real World Experience into the Classroom
“Engineering Week reminds us all how essential engineering is to our lives and civilization,” said James Pocock, a civil engineer professor who teaches architectural design, construction management and sustainable engineering courses. “You can see its value in everything from the impact of power and water outages in Texas, to the Perseverance Rover landing on Mars, Feb. 18.

“We tend to take technology for granted even though we depend on it heavily in our everyday lives – like being able to email from my laptop,” he said. “We don’t always appreciate technology until it fails.”

Pocock said civil engineering cadets are enthusiastic about their academic pursuits.”

“What we teach in the department and what our students learn makes positive contributions in people’s lives. For example, Doctor Tom Phelan teaches humanitarian engineering, which considers how to provide clean water in developing countries. Lt. Col. Matt LeBlanc and Doctor Melissa Beauregard teach a course that includes how to design airfield pavements dear to the heart of Air Force pilots.

 “We have a very tight connection to the Air Force Civil Engineering career field,” he said. “All of our military instructors – and even some of our civilian instructors – have this operational background, not just the right degrees to teach our courses. We bring real-world experiences into the classroom.”

Two teams of senior civil engineering cadets used that real-world experience to prove their mettle earlier this year at the annual Associated Schools of Construction student competition. The ASC is a professional organization promoting the development and advancement of construction education.

This year’s competition occurred online with the department’s Design Build team taking first place among seven teams.

 Academy has competed in the competition since 2006, Pocock said.

The commercial team was Zachery Allen, Caleb Boone, Charles Burns, Michaela McFalls, Kenneth Ryan and Itzel Chan Topete, all cadets’ first class. The Design Build Team was Nathaniel Dyer Michael Greisman, Clay Madson, Creston Martin, Daniel Mecca and Quinton Riddle, also cadets first class.

Mechanical Engineering: Solving Complex Problems
Cadet 2nd Class Catherine McAlister, a mechanical engineering major, said engineering week combines creativity and passion to look for new ways of solving the most complex problems.

“Engineering week is just incredible,” she said. “I have been most grateful for mechanical engineering because it will provide you with a fundamental basis for all forms of engineering. This diversity means that I can look at the same material as an electrical, aeronautical, or astrological engineer and understand their work with a fluidity not found in any other major.”

McAlister said the substantial amount of opportunities provided to cadets with a mechanical engineering degree drew her to her academic pursuits. She hopes to earn a masters’ in structures after graduating from the Academy.

“I would love to have the opportunity to return to the Academy and teach the next class of engineering cadets,” she said.

“The challenging academics, research and mentorship opportunities found in the mechanical engineering department establish the foundation for a future that’s only limited by your ambition,” McAlister said.

[Editor’s note: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent less than 20% of full-time wage and salary workers in architecture and engineering occupations. See parts two and three of thise series at https://www.usafa.af.mil/News/Features/Article/2517337/engineering-week-feature-series-academys-engineering-cadets-accelerate-technolo/ and https://www.usafa.af.mil/News/Features/Article/2521110/engineering-week-feature-series-wrap-up-imagining-tomorrow/]