A state-of-the-art design lab is critical to attracting top students and training them in the project-based learning for which the Department of Mechanical Engineering is known. Thanks to a philanthropic coalition of alumni, faculty, and industry leaders, UC Santa Barbara has transformed its machine shop into the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design.
Students at all levels benefit from shop experience at UC Santa Barbara. Freshmen all learn the equipment by building an air powered motor. Juniors experiment with their own products, and by senior year, students tackle important capstone projects that some go on to patent.
The capstone program’s objectives are to teach and instill problem-solving skills, creative and analytical thinking, project planning, and communication. Students work in teams under the direction of a faculty advisor to tackle an engineering design project. Projects can be initiated by industry, student-led organizations, and campus faculty. At the end of the year, students present their projects at the Senior Design Expo and compete for prizes.
Between 100-200 students work on these projects each year, and enrollment is growing. The machine shop serves as the physical space where capstone students work in teams. Surrounded by the supplies, equipment, and storage they need to execute their project, the machine shop is central to the capstone team’s success. While the machine shop met the fundamental needs of students, the department anticipated that it would soon fall short of the demands of industry and academia.
R. Alastair Winn ’73 credits UC Santa Barbara for his technical education and perspective on the world. The retired founder and CEO of Applied Silicone Corporation has hired UC Santa Barbara alumni and sponsored several capstone projects. While he was impressed with the students’ work, Alastair realized that the world-class engineers needed a world-class shop to effectively bring their concepts to reality.
“The nexus created by young talent having the resources to apply their academic skills to actually build something functional and useful is the most important part of an education for most engineers,” said Alastair. “Students need a design lab with the resources, mentors, and equipment to build projects all the way to a working prototype.”
The initiative has provided students with just that. The new Center for Engineering Innovation and Design will increase space by 35%. When completed, electronic card access will allow students to use the center 24/7, and there will be ample storage for machines, materials, and projects. There are Workspace and Makerspace 3D prototyping areas and new machines that will eventually have features for automated design.
Virgil Elings, UC Santa Barbara professor emeritus of physics and co-founder of Digital Instruments, felt compelled by the chance to upgrade the machines themselves.
“I supported the purchase of modern equipment, and with that equipment, the students themselves will be modernized by their connection to the machine shop and by their learnings there,” said Elings.
He and Alastair have led the effort to motivate others to support the center. Phil Brotherton ’83 received his bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering from UC Santa Barbara, then went on to earn an MBA from UC Berkeley. He spent the dot-com era in startups and in 2004 joined NetApp, for which he serves as vice president of the Solutions and Alliances program.
“My wife, Diane, and I are proud to inspire others to give back to UC Santa Barbara,” said Phil. “My late mother was also a UCSB graduate, and she encouraged me to attend the university. We were both blessed by the foundational education that we received on campus.”
Thanks to donor support, that education has been enhanced. “We’re creating mechanical engineers in the design center,” said lab mechanic and former superintendent of shops Andy Weinberg. “It will help their market value when they already know how to program and use the machines. Most importantly, they have a skill even if they don’t want to be an engineer. The shop also supports any lab on campus that needs help. Anything we can’t buy, we can make here.”
The Department of Mechanical Engineering continues to be one of the best programs of its kind, competing with some of the finest institutions for talented students. In the new Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, students will have the tools and teamwork to make great things.