26 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 5 of our 5-part series introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s civil engineering program.
Optimized-Cody Civil engineering student, Cody Webb.

For Cody Webb, there’s no greater feeling than being out on the job site.

Growing up in Pinch, West Virginia, Webb was exposed to construction at an early age. He remembers being around the field as a kid, tagging along with his father and grandfather to various jobsites and setting up his own construction projects in the back yard.

“I have always had an interest in construction and building things. I’ve been around it all my life. My grandfather was a homebuilder and painter. My father worked in the oilfields. All of that got me fascinated with heavy equipment and watching how a construction project comes together,” he said.

The senior civil engineering major plans to go directly into the construction industry after graduation, where he can spend his days making those kinds of projects happen on a much grander scale.

“Civil engineering will allow me to have a lifelong career in a field that is related with construction. I enjoy being out on a job site, not stuck doing the same thing every day. There are different challenges you see when you’re out there and you have to come up with solutions. It’s not the same every day and it keeps you on your toes,” he said.

Webb said he chose to study at WVU Tech because he was attracted to the small class sizes and the fact that he knew he would get to work directly with his professors. In his time at Tech, Webb became a member of the WVU Tech student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He also works for the civil engineering department chair as a student grader.

“I grade the homework assignments for different classes throughout the year. To grade assignments, you have to have had the class previously, so I’m always going over materials I have already learned. It’s like a constant refresher course. It helps you stay sharp,” he said.

Webb’s primary career goal is to become a professionally licensed civil engineer. He’ll have to take a series of exams after graduation and work in the field for some time before he can earn that title. Ultimately, he wants to find himself in a position where he can design simple, practical projects that enhance the wellbeing of those around him.

“Civil engineering is important in today’s world because everything is changing constantly. With those changes, roads, bridges and buildings are always needing to be updated and built to accommodate these changes. To me, that makes it our responsibility to be as safe and efficient as possible and to improve the quality of infrastructure for everyone,” he said.

Outside of the classroom, Webb is gaining experience where he can. Last summer, he worked for a local construction company. He said his time in the field taught him a lot about the way design and practice work together.

“I was out there doing simple stuff like material calculations. At the same time, I was able to help the workers on-site and was able to see the problems you run into in a construction project,” he said.

“I learned that a design on paper and what you’re actually building can be two different things. You can’t always make the perfect design on the first try. Without being there in the field to see the problems and challenges that come up, you don’t always know what to account for,” he said. “But you also can’t solve all those problems without an understanding of design to come up with a solution.”

In his study of the discipline and his work in the field, Webb found that he has an interest in the mechanical behavior of soil and how to design structures in problematic terrain. He said he’s also interested in building materials and was surprised by the amount and variety of materials used in the industry. He’s particularly fascinated with recyclables.

“In the near future I see the field of civil engineering using more recycled materials and using advancing technology to develop superior structures more affordably and efficiently. Right now, engineers overseas are using a lot of geosynthetic materials, which are mostly made up of plastic,” he said.

“They’re using up these old plastics so they’re not sitting in a landfill somewhere. They’re being put to good use as geogrids or geotextiles that reinforce soil. These materials are very durable and, if you use them right, you can do almost anything with them. They’re also cheaper than the steel I-beams and other structural materials we tend to use, which are much more expensive to purchase and install,” he said.

Webb said he’s happy with his college career choice and that he’s excited to start putting his training and education to use. His advice for students considering a career in the industry? Go for it, and don’t look back.

“Civil engineering is a great career choice. There are endless possibilities in civil engineering due to its different disciplines,” he said. “You can be a project manager or a design engineer. You can work collecting safety data for roads. You can do wastewater and drinking water systems. There are endless opportunities. It’s not just roads and bridges. It’s everything.”

25 Feb

WVU Tech students joined student researchers from throughout the state today for Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.

Robert Gresham Mechanical engineering major Robert A. Gresham discusses his team’s work at Undergraduate Research Day.

WVU Tech students showcased 14 research projects ranging from the role of religion in coping with stress among college students to smart window technology and the use of algae to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.

Daniel Noel, a senior electrical engineering student from Clay County, was part of a team that tackled electricity production in automobiles.

“Our project attempts to solve the issue of electricity production in vehicles. Right now, the typical alternator in your car is only 21 percent efficient, which means that for every dollar you spend in electrical power production to run things like your air conditioner or radio, you lose 79 cents. Not very many people know that,” he said.

“We’ve taken the wasted power from vibrations in the shocks and heat from the exhaust and converted it into electrical energy. It will increase the fuel efficiency of your car by 5 percent. Over the life of a vehicle, that’s a savings of about $2,500. The technology can also be used in a much larger scale to capture and convert wasted vibration energy on trains and bridges,” he said.

Robert A. Gresham, a senior in WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program, visited the capitol with his team to share their work on ocean thermal energy conversion.

“This type of conversion uses temperature difference between low and high points in the ocean to create power. This process typically relies on steam to produce power, but our design works with ammonia, which allows us to operate within a much smaller temperature difference. We used modeling software to model what the real system would look like and to see how changes in surface temperature would impact power output and efficiency,” he said.

He said that modeling projects in this way is an important step in working out problems and ensuring that multi-million-dollar energy projects have solutions in place before they are built.

For Gresham, Undergraduate Research Day is an important opportunity to showcase the work of West Virginia’s students.

“It lets people know that we have very, very smart kids right here in West Virginia. If we provide them opportunities to show the kind of work they can do and how smart they can be, it reminds people of the importance and value of what college students are doing,” he said.

Mark Magallanes, a junior psychology major who came to WVU Tech from Arizona, said the day is also about professional practice. He discussed his research on narcissism among college athletes, and found that he was gaining valuable experience in pitching his work to professionals.

“It’s important to put yourself out there as you prepare for graduate school and finding a job,” he said. “It’s nice to meet with people and recruiters to get your name out there. To learn to talk about your work with confidence and open your mind to other research that’s going on.”

Visit WVU Tech on Flickr to see photos from Undergraduate Research Day.

25 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 4 of our 5-part series introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s chemical engineering program.
Optimized-Lori(cropped) Chemical engineering alumna, Lori Shaffer, P.E. ‘94.

When Lori Shaffer, P.E., ‘94, had to decide on the college program that would shape the course of her career, she knew it had to be chemical engineering.

“I love mathematics and chemistry. My dad was a civil engineer. So I chose chemical engineering. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I did a couple of internships and fell in love with it,” she said.

A few years later, she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, a degree in chemistry and a minor in mathematics.

Now Shaffer puts her WVU Tech education to use at Columbia Pipeline Group as Lead Gas Quality Engineer. She’s responsible for monitoring gas quality in the company’s more than 15,000 miles of pipeline stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to New York and from Virginia to Indiana.

“I’m responsible for monitoring the quality of the gas coming into our pipelines to ensure it meets the limits set by our tariff. As part of that, I do a lot of electronic monitoring of receipt points into the gas pipeline. The general idea is that I keep the bad gas out and make sure that gas is flowing in a way that ensures our pipeline is safe and reliable,” she said.

Shaffer has held a number of titles in her engineering career. She started out at Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) as a production engineer, where she worked in a chemical plant making sure the facility produced products in a safe and efficient way. She was also given the reins over some major plant projects.

“I was the field engineer over the installation of a large enclosed filtration system for one of the chemicals we produced. It was a large-capital project. I was the field contact, so I had to commission it. It was a new piece of equipment that no one else in the company had worked with before. It was a little daunting, but we made it work,” she said.

In 2001 Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide. Shaffer moved into a supply chain role within the company, working as a production planner and scheduler. She monitored product orders and inventory. In that role, she coordinated the activity of reactors, drumming stations and tank car racks to make sure the facility was effectively meeting client demand.

Shaffer became a certified Six Sigma Black Belt, which gave her specialized training in using data to find and eliminate weaknesses and defects in processes. She put those skills to work in project management where her mission was to save the company money and remove inefficiencies in different plant processes.

This love for logistics led to one of Shaffer’s favorite projects. At Dow, she was charged with examining logistics for the company’s chemicals business across the entire country.

“We had drums of materials stored in several facilities across the country because that was the previous company’s model. They kept a little bit of inventory close to each customer base. They would ship ten drums to a location and monitor when the customer had used that up. That turned out to be a very costly way of doing things,” she said.

“Dow wanted me to optimize that network, and to look at how we could still offer great service to our customers who needed product quickly. The project took a lot of data analysis and looking at logistics networks to come up with a solution. We settled on a centralized storage facility. We could ship full truckloads of material from there to our customers or to a satellite area, and I was able to save the company over a million dollars in logistics costs in that project. It was pretty awesome,” she said.

Shaffer worked in logistics for a few companies after Dow, and left the chemical business in 2009. She decided to try her hand at teaching and became an instructor in WVU Tech’s engineering technology department. She taught industrial and mechanical engineering technology classes at her alma mater for three years.

After her time at Tech, Shaffer joined Columbia as an operations analyst. That position required her to analyze data from natural gas compressors, or the massive, motor-driven devices that compress natural gas so that pipelines stay pressurized and gas keeps moving. Her analysis allowed the company to predict potential failures in these compressors and get ahead of the game on their maintenance.

Soon after, Shaffer moved into her new position in gas quality, where she said her education and training has come full circle.

“I have to apply my chemistry and chemical engineering education because I have to understand the chemistry of all of the impurities that come up from the ground in natural gas and how those constituents interact with each other. I also have to understand fluid dynamics, so this job is calling on everything I learned at Tech,” she said.

In order to monitor gas quality in the pipeline system, the company uses a network of gas chromatographs. These devices are used to determine the chemical makeup of natural gas flowing through various receipt points where natural gas enters the system.

To operate properly, these gas chromatographs require the use of a calibration gas. When the company recently needed to find a new vendor for that gas, they relied on Shaffer’s expertise to make it happen.

“I’ve been interviewing vendors, doing site visits and auditing businesses to see if they’re capable of handling our needs. So now that we’ve settled on a new vendor, I’m taking new information and a new ordering process and rolling it out to our field employees because they’re the ones who work with the calibration gas. There’s a lot of coordination that goes into even the simplest changes when you’re working on a system of this scale,” she said.

For Shaffer, this kind of problem solving is just part of the day-to-day in chemical engineering. It’s a field she said works behind the scenes to make products people use every day.

“Chemical engineers make just about anything you touch, from the plastics in sandwich bags to the gum you’re chewing. Wrigley’s bubblegum base is made right here at a chemical plant in Charleston. The de-icer that allows airplanes to take off safely and the brake fluid used in GM cars are made here, too. Car dashboards are manufactured using the same polyvinyl resin as the bubblegum base,” she said.

“That’s the thing about chemical engineers. If we don’t have them, then there’s no one out there to make all this stuff we use on a daily basis,” she said.

Shaffer lives in Charleston, West Virginia with her husband Paul, a 2008 graduate of WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program who also works at Columbia. The couple has two young children. Their son plays hockey for a traveling team and their daughter plays volleyball, so the family spends much of their free time traveling.

Shaffer is a member of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the Institute of Industrial Engineers and the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association. She also holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Marshall University. While at Tech, she was a founding sister of the University’s Alpha Sigma Tau (AST) sorority and remains active in the organization.

She’s built an impressive career on her love of chemistry and mathematics, and said that one of her greatest rewards is being able to give back through mentorships. Through programming at Columbia, she’s been able to work with an intern each summer to show these young students what a STEM career could mean for them.

“I have the opportunity to help shape and guide their working lives and help them get through school. I’m fortunate to have this opportunity. Two of the students that have worked for me are now with the company full time. That’s so rewarding,” she said.

For new grads heading out into the field, she said the oil and gas industry is going to be an area of opportunity for chemical engineers in the coming decades, particularly in distribution, transmission and drilling. Regardless of which field newcomers choose, she said that chemical engineers can be confident in that they’ll always have a place to work.

“STEM degrees are powerful. You know there’s always going to be innovation. You always need someone to keep processes moving along. You will always have a job. It’s not always going to be your dream job, but you’ll be able to find work somewhere because STEM and engineering degrees are so versatile,” she said.

“My background proves it. I’ve done everything from true production engineering to supply chain, logistics and higher education. An engineering background doesn’t just teach you how to engineer. It teaches you how to think logically and apply problem-solving to the world around you, no matter where that is or what you’re doing,” she said.

25 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 4 of our 5-part series introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s chemical engineering program.
Optimized-Harrison (1) Chemical engineering student, Harrison Martin.

As a kid growing up in Ronceverte, West Virginia, WVU Tech chemical engineering student Harrison Martin remembers taking trips to the state capital of Charleston. He recalls driving past the chemical production facilities that operate just outside of the city and marveling at the labyrinths of tanks, pipes and stacks.

“To me they looked like a big maze. I always loved solving puzzles as a child and they are definitely a puzzle to be solved,” he said.

As he moved into high school, he started uncovering his aptitude in mathematics. Then he took a chemistry course, and that combination of interests made his career goals clear.

“To be able to know why things happen rather than just accepting the fact that they do intrigues me. What is it in toothpaste that cleans your teeth? What is put into the medicine at the stores? So when I had my first chemistry course in high school, I knew I wanted chemistry to be a part of my life,” he said.

Martin chased his love for chemistry to Montgomery, where he enrolled in WVU Tech’s chemical engineering program. Now a junior, he said he’s in the most intense part of the chemical engineer’s undergraduate education.

“Right now, I’m in the stage where we’re doing a lot of coursework. Taking a lot of courses. We’re learning a lot of information about equipment and the practical uses for that equipment. Learning how it works, how to design it and what works better in certain situations,” he said.

In addition to his academic responsibilities, Martin is an active member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honors society and WVU Tech’s American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) student chapter. He’s also part of the AIChE’s first-ever ChemE Car Team. The group is working on a small-scale car powered by a chemical reaction, and they hope to enter their creation into the spring 2017 competition.

In his down time, Martin is an outdoorsman who enjoys hunting, fishing, target shooting, hiking and skiing. He’s also a regular on the University’s intramural Frisbee team and plays with the crew twice a week.

Martin said that his experience at Tech has been one centered on putting theory to work in real-world situations. His professors have encouraged him to gain experience wherever he can, and have helped him line up internship opportunities.

Last summer, for instance, Martin worked as an intern at chemical manufacturer Cytec (now Solvay) on Willow Island in Pleasants County, West Virginia. At Cytec, Martin created visual workplace items, or images and flowcharts posted around the plant to ensure workers know how to respond to certain situations. He also worked on preventative maintenance projects and helped the company determine how a new reactor upgrade would impact capacity.

“I developed a scale-up model for the plant. They were replacing a 3000-gallon reactor with a 4000-gallon reactor. They needed to know what kind of capacity hit they were going to take because, in this process, they were going from two reactors down to just one. So I did a capacity analysis to see how much they would lose,” he said.

“I learned so much this past summer, and it’s nice to be able to relate my experience to the classes I’m in now. When professors start talking about a centrifuge or some other piece of equipment, I know exactly what they’re talking about and I’ve actually worked with it,” he said.

He’ll be continuing his hands-on education this summer in an internship with Dow Chemical in Charleston, where he hopes to gain invaluable experience assisting the chemical engineers working in one the company’s three regional plants.

“After my internship experience, I discovered a lot more pathways that I can take with my degree. I didn’t know how big the scope of employment was for chemical engineering. There are consulting firms that come in. In the plant itself, you have engineers that work with one procedure – which is what I want to do – and then you have technical managers and design engineers that handle the bigger projects,” he said.

Martin said he’s excited to start his career in the industry. He’s confident that his training will help him land a job.

“The thing I find most exciting about my field of study is the fact that I will always have something to do. There will always be projects that I can work on. Another key piece is that I will always be learning new processes and techniques. There will always be new technology, and new experiences,” he said.

“Chemical engineering is so important because chemical engineers make the materials that are put into everyday items. All plastics are made up of polymers that are synthesized in a chemical plant. Almost all drugs are synthesized in a chemical plant. The chemical industry is very important in today’s world. It offers a better, more efficient, more profitable society,” he said.

24 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 3 of our 5-part series covers all things computers, and introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s computer engineering and computer science programs.
Optimized-Gabbi Computer engineering student, Gabbi Kelley.

WVU Tech’s Gabbi Kelley can tell you exactly when she knew computer engineering was the career for her.

“Since I got my first laptop in 2006, I’ve had an interest in computers and how they work. I’ve always thought it was fun to understand ‘under the hood’ of a computer a little more than the typical user would,” she said.

A decade later, the Beckley, West Virginia native is wrapping up her undergraduate degree in computer engineering with a minor in mathematics at WVU Tech. She said she chose the University for its reputation and small campus environment.

During her time at WVU Tech, Kelley stayed involved on campus, holding leadership positions and active membership status in a number of student-run organizations. She’s a member of the Student Government Association and is active in WVU Tech’s faith-based student organizations, including Campus Light, Illuminate and the Christian Student Union.

Last year, Kelley was also instrumental in the founding of Golden Bear Outdoor Expeditions, a student group established in the fall 2015 semester. She’s vice president of the organization, which organizes outdoor adventure trips such as hiking, zip-lining, ice skating, caving, rappelling and fishing.

Outside of the classroom, Kelley said she likes to spend her free time in artistic pursuits. She’s a painter, and enjoys working in watercolor and acrylics. She’s also a jewelry maker She sells her creations at craft fairs and online. Over the last three years, she has established a successful shop on Etsy where she sells her handmade bracelets and necklaces.

Kelley also enjoys helping others. She has worked as a peer tutor in the University’s Student Success Center for the last three years, offering advice and assistance to students in math and computer engineering courses. She even spends her summer breaks giving tours to new students and helping out during open house recruitment events.

With graduation day on the horizon, Kelley said she’s excited about launching her new career. She hopes to find herself working for companies like Apple or Google, who are known for pushing the boundaries of innovation.

“My dream job as a computer engineer has always been to help design the next great product. In my day-to-day life, I naturally think of ways to improve the efficiency or ease of use of common, household items. For instance, when I’m using my iPhone I consider what Apple should add in their next software update,” she said.

“I also hope to work with exciting new technologies such as virtual reality,” she said. “Recently, Tesla Studios has developed a full body haptic virtual reality suit that allows video gamers to feel what their character would feel.”

Kelley is looking forward to working in computer engineering because she sees it as an opportunity to stay sharp and to work on the cutting-edge.

“My field is exciting because it’s always changing and technology is always improving. New programming languages, software tools and new processes are constantly in development. For example, the programming languages I have learned so far might be obsolete within ten years,” she said.

In addition to keeping up with constantly evolving processes, Kelley said one of the great challenges in her field if fitting more tech in less space. It’s a challenge she and other emerging computer engineers are ready to face.

“Since the invention of computers, our devices have become smaller and smaller. An issue the computer engineering industry is facing right now is that transistors are limited in how small and how close together they can be,” she said.

“In the next few years, I see computer engineers creating devices on a smaller and smaller scale. I’m excited to see how new technologies can be applied to the medical field, the aerospace industry, and in our day-to-day lives,” she said.

Kelley said that another challenge in computer engineering is recruiting females into the field.

“The most surprising thing I’ve learned about my field is the extreme lack of female representation. When I chose my major, I never imagined I was making a decision that was unusual for women. However, my classmates and professors have never made me feel out of place for being part of the minority. I would encourage any woman interested in engineering to pursue it,” she said.

She spent two summers working as a counselor in WVU Tech’s popular Camp STEM program, where she was able to provide some of that encouragement. She worked with middle and high school students to explore engineering fields.

She said that sparking an interest in engineering at a young age helps young students see opportunities they may not have otherwise discovered.

“Children want to be doctors, musicians and princesses when they grow up because their favorite cartoon characters represent those fields. If engineering was introduced to students at a younger age, I think there would be a greater interest in it, resulting in greater diversity in the field,” she said.

24 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 3 of our 5-part series covers all things computers, and introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s computer engineering and computer science programs.
Tom Computer science alumnus, Tom Thompson, Ph.D., ‘92.

Tom Thompson, Ph.D., ‘92, is a WVU Tech computer science grad and a software engineer with a storied career in the film and video game industries. Based in Irvine, California, Thompson spends his days developing film software for Blizzard Entertainment, the studio behind popular video game franchises “Warcraft,” “Diablo” and “StarCraft.”

More importantly, he spends his days doing the work he loves.

Before landing in California, Thompson travelled the world. His father served in the Air Force, so Thompson spent his youth living in places like Maryland, Germany, Utah and Texas. During his freshman year of high school, the family moved to Martinsburg, West Virginia. It was there where he fell hard for all things computer science.

“They had a computer science lab and my sister took a class there. She was a senior at the time, so she would stay after school to work on the homework because we didn’t have a computer at home,” Thompson said.

“I would sit in the computer lab with her and play with the old TRS-80s that they had. That was eye-opening. I was amazed at what these things could do. Of course, those things were terrible compared to just about anything we have now,” he said.

Thompson found that he had a knack for punching in a few lines and making the machines do what he wanted them to do. He started reading Computer Science Magazine, which included sample programs. Thompson would study the samples and spend hours writing out his own programs. He’d bring his creations to the lab on his next visits to see what worked and what didn’t.

“It was exciting. I was very into it,” he said. “Because of that, my dad ended up buying us the Coleco Adam computer. It came out around the same time as the Commodore 64. It had dual tape drives and dual motherboards. I thought it was really nice, but it didn’t take off, so I was the only one I knew that had one.”

He still has it in his garage.

In the years since the computer lab in Martinsburg, Thompson has traveled the nation, furthering his education and building a prolific career as a software engineer.

Thompson attended Tech in the early 90s. He worked with professors like WVU Tech’s Don Smith, who taught Thompson and his peers to think like logicians and approach their careers as lifelong learners.

After Tech, Thompson attended Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He completed a master’s degree in computer science with a minor in radiology, then went on to earn his Ph.D. in computer science with a specialty in film at the University of Utah. Out of grad school, he headed west to California, where he took a job with Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.

He said he still remembers his first big task at Disney. The studio was working on “Kangaroo Jack,” and the artists ran into an odd problem.

“They came in and said ‘when the kangaroo jumps, the jacket goes up and down and the fur goes through the jacket.’ They asked me to fix it,” he said. “I knew then that things were going to be interesting from then on.”

Thompson spent more than ten years at Disney, where he held a number of positions. He started out as a software engineer, developing tools for the studio’s artists. For a time, he led a group that did hair development. He supervised teams that created things like painting tools, hair system tools and shaders. After that, his love for the work brought him back to the design desk.

“I went back to being a developer after that,” he said. “For me, it’s a lot more fun to actually do the work than to direct it.”

While at Disney, Thompson was the lead architect on the XGen instancing engine that determined the behavior of different animation elements, such as feathers, grass, fur and even the candy sprinkles in “Wreck-It Ralph.” The program was first employed in “Chicken Little” to govern the behavior of the feathers on the title character. The engine has been used in every Disney movie since, including major titles like “Meet the Robinsons,” “Bolt,” “Tangled,” Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen.”

Thompson said his work on the engine is one of the most memorable projects of his career, and that it gave him a chance to take on some unique challenges, like Rapunzel’s fantastically long hair in “Tangled.”

“Most of the time, you’re just trying to use something that already exists, but in a way that makes it your own. The hair on Rapunzel? Nobody had done that before. Nobody had 70-foot-long hair that had so many controls in it that you had to create more tools just to let the artist control it,” he said.

“That kind of project presents all kinds of challenges. How do you make it drag along the ground? How do you make it avoid rocks and the people walking alongside her? How do you braid it and put flowers in it and have that all stick and work right? It becomes its own kind of research project at that point. You start testing limits and exploring capabilities,” he said.

The XGen software was eventually picked up by Pixar and used on films like “Toy Story 3,” “Cars 2,” and “Up.” Disney now licenses the software. It’s being used in small studios, at Blizzard Entertainment and at DreamWorks Studios.

“They have a forum online where people can ask questions and talk about things they’ve done with the software. Since I wrote the program over ten years, I can go on and I get to be the expert for that package. That feeling is very rewarding, having contributed to the greater community as opposed to just one studio,” he said.

A few years ago, Thompson decided to try his hand in the video game industry. He moved to Irvine, California to take a position as a software engineer in Blizzard’s film group. It’s similar work, but instead of feature films, the group creates cinematics that run during games. He’s working on things like crowd systems and lighting tools that help the artists make the films.

For Thompson, it’s this collaboration that makes his job so interesting.

“Of course, there’s a lot of time in front of the computer, but for my job in particular, you’re doing your best work when you’re collaborating with the artists and finding what they want or need. My customers are the artists, so there’s a good bit of back and forth and multiple iterations for one client,” he said.

Working with Blizzard has given Thompson new boundaries to test, and he said it’s one of the most exciting aspects about what he does for a living.

“Every now and again, they’ll come in and tell me they’re setting up something like a shot of 10,000 orcs marching along. They need them all to be marching side-by-side, at different steps, wearing different clothing, some carrying torches and others carrying banners. They can’t do it because they can’t even load all of that onto one computer,” he said.

“You have to figure out what you can do to make this work and still let the artists have some control over it. Those moments when production can’t just brute force something, you get a chance to tackle a real challenge,” he said.

For young computer science and computer engineering professionals heading into the field, Thompson said pushing boundaries is going to be part of the day-to-day as concepts like hardware rendering and multi-processing are finding their way into the industry.

“For a long time, Moore’s Law ruled, where computers just got faster and faster at certain intervals. That’s kind of tapping out. You can’t just keep making processors with smaller and smaller wires on them. Eventually, you’ll not be able to physically do it. So now it’s about multi-core computers and computers with accelerators in them,” he said.

Thompson said that this emerging tech is both an opportunity and a challenge. Advanced processing can perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously, and will enable programmers to do more. However, there’s little in the way of established programming languages or troubleshooting resources for those working with multithreaded programs.

Even so, he sees a future full of potential for software engineers just breaking into the field.

“When I started, computers were like toys. They weren’t that powerful. Now they’re everywhere. It’s hard to do anything without touching upon a computer at some point. Desktops, laptops, tablets, phones. Most of us have one on us right now. There’s no shortage of ways to get involved in that field and contribute to that,” he said.

Throughout his career, Thompson has been an active member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the association’s SIGGRAPH community. He also played tennis and said he’s a big fan of professional sports.

He has two young children, and working at a video game studio has understandably elevated him to rock star status among their friends. He’s also been coaching a youth soccer team for the last few years, and said that parents of students considering a college career in computer science often ask him for advice.

“I tell them to stick with it. People don’t realize how much work it takes. Ask for help when you need it. Rely on your professors and your peers. It’s definitely worth it when you can get into a field that you enjoy,” he said. “I worked a long time to be able to choose my job. It makes a big difference when you make the choice that is right for you.”

24 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 3 of our 5-part series covers all things computers, and introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s computer engineering and computer science programs.
Optimized-Jeremy Computer science and electrical engineering student, Jeremy Ruth.

For as long as he can remember, WVU Tech student Jeremy Ruth has been pulling things apart and putting them back together to see how they work. He’s a tinkerer with a passion for computers and electronics, and he’s working to turn those interests into a full-time career.

A double major in computer science and electrical engineering, Ruth grew up in Beckley, West Virginia. He spent a number of years in Florida, then a few more in California where he pursued a career as a professional musician before returning to his home state. Back home, he decided to take his interest in electronics a step further and enrolled in WVU Tech’s electrical engineering program.

“I like to build and modify things. I started with the electrical engineering degree originally since the type of work electrical engineers do sounded interesting,” he said. “As I got more into the degree, I realized that, in order to do the things I really wanted to do, I would need to have an understanding of electrical components as well as how to program or control them.”

His inquisitive nature is a powerful motivator, so he added a major in computer science to his career plan.

“I have always had some interest in computer science. I had done some programming in a very basic sense in previous jobs, and that was self-taught. Being exposed to programming in that setting made me realize that I wanted to know more about it. I find it amazing how much we can accomplish with ones and zeros. With ever-increasing options for making programs that can do more, it’s a pretty exciting field to explore,” he said.

He said studying the two disciplines has opened his eyes to the interconnectedness of many STEM fields, and that he’s uncovered a surprising amount of overlap between the programs.

“Electrical engineering provides the physical frameworks that are used to allow all of this programming magic to happen. The process of translating a concept in someone’s mind into a set of instructions, which is then interpreted by hardware that is essentially reading high and low voltages at incredibly fast speeds is pretty amazing to me. Much of our modern society is dependent on that chain,” he said.

Ruth said he’s excited about the opportunities his major choices will open up. He plans to start the job hunt soon, and is searching for opportunities in the region.

“Ideally, I would like to be in a situation where the goal is to solve problems by developing new devices or hardware. Something where I can mix research and design and really put what I’ve learned in both fields to work,” he said.

Regardless of where he winds up, Ruth said that he and his fellow computer science and electrical engineering up-and-comers could be working with some revolutionary new technologies in the coming years.

“Society will definitely need many computer scientists and electrical engineers to create the technologies that we envision as ‘the future.’ There are so many things that you can end up doing in either field,” he said.

He said the future he looks forward to seeing includes developments in areas like artificial intelligence and 3D printing, which have powerful and widespread applications in everything from manufacturing to medicine.

He’s also interested in advancements in how computers think, including fuzzy logic (a type of computing logic that assigns values to the degrees in between binary’s ones and zeros), ternary computing (which uses three values instead of binary’s two) and quantum computing.

“Just those few topics have the potential to have a huge impact on where the industry goes in the future. Not just in developing new technology, but also how we interact with it. I think both fields will only continue to expand as modern life becomes more and more dependent on the things that these two fields together create.”

While he finds the notion of working with emerging technologies exciting, Ruth’s interest in computer science and electrical engineering comes down to improving the world around him.

“The demand for these fields comes directly from a need to overcome challenges to ultimately improve life for people,” he said. “As the problems we want to solve have become more and more complex and detailed, many times the accuracy and capabilities required to solve these problems can only be achieved through computers or automated systems. Computer scientists and electrical engineers will play a critical role in meeting those needs.”

He said the biggest challenge in his field will be creating these systems while keeping up with shrinking technology and finding cleaner, more efficient ways to power all this tech.

Now in his junior year, Ruth said he’s working hard to stay on schedule.

He commutes to campus from his home in Beckley, where he lives with his wife, Gina. When he’s not mastering the principles of circuitry or testing the waters in a new programming language, he spends his time reading and gaming.

Ruth is a multi-talented musician who sings and plays guitar, bass and piano. He likes to spend time building and repairing things, and more often than not, those interests collide. Right now, for instance, he’s building a guitar from scratch.

It’s a lot of work, balancing life and two rigorous majors, but Ruth said he’s excited about everything he’s learning. His advice for students studying computer science or electrical engineering is to do the same – dig into it wherever they can.

“So far, my experience has been that the best way to learn is to spend time working with the tools of the field. Write programs in several languages, and try to solve problems that you have in your life, even if a program already exists for it. Get your hands dirty with electrical components and devices. Learn about them, build them and take them apart,” he said.

“These things provide a great context for what is learned in the classroom and really help the concepts stick and relate to each other. It also helps you realize the challenges that you might face in your career and where your personal weaknesses may be so that you can strengthen them,” he said.

23 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 2 of our 5-part series introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program.
Optimized-Nathan Mechanical engineering alumnus, Nathan Stark, P.E., MBA, ‘07.

Nathan Stark, P.E., MBA, ‘07, grew up in Wirt County, West Virginia, and it was among the sawdust and gear grease of a log processing mill that he first discovered his love for engineering and project management.

Stark’s father made his living building log homes, and when the opportunity presented itself, he purchased the mill that produced the materials he used in his business. He spent his time rebuilding the mill and the machinery within it.

It was in this setting that a young Nathan Stark found himself learning how machines work.

“I observed these processes and became interested in machine components: gears, transmissions, bearings, shafts and bolts. Essentially, moving parts – what is important to a mechanical engineer,” he said.

Following his fascination with machinery, Stark enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at WVU Tech and graduated in 2008. Since then, he has served in a variety of engineering roles, holding positions such as Maintenance Engineer, Store Engineer (where he managed procurement activities in a plant), Maintenance Project Manager, Piping Engineer and Project Engineer.

Stark quickly began to demonstrate a talent in project management, and rounded out his education with a Master of Business Administration degree at Marshall University. He now works as a Project Engineer assigned to projects for Dow Chemical at plants that produce everything from chemicals used in the oil and gas industry to the lubricating strips found on razor blades.

“I’m a project manager. I plan and execute engineering design projects from their initiation to completion. This entails managing the scope, schedule and budget of the project, as well as working collectively with design engineers,” he said.

Stark said that he’s able to find success in his field because his engineering education not only taught him the fundamental principles that govern how things works, but how to be a self-learner.

“As a project engineer, I manage the work of all the engineering disciplines on a project. In order to be successful, I must proactively learn new technical materials. One minute I am talking to a chemical engineer about process flow rates and velocities, the next minute I am talking to a civil engineer about the best way to repair a containment area,” he said.

Stark’s position requires him to put these skills to the test on a variety of projects, and he likes to take on projects that offer a challenge. He said that one of his most recent projects – a fire suppression system update at a local plant – is a prime example of the kind of work he enjoys doing.

The system uses water from a nearby river to fight instances of fire, but the system required an operator to manually start up a diesel engine that would have to pump water into the system to pressurize it before it could be used.

Stark and his team were charged with eliminating that lag time in the system by installing a nearby pump that would keep the system pressurized and ready to use at all times.

“This was a neat project,” said Stark. “We installed a pump that stands 45-feet tall and draws water from the bottom of the river. We had to work with divers who would go down and do some excavation where the pump sits. The system leaks, so we installed a control valve and flow meter that monitors leakage. This will throttle different amounts of water into the system to keep it pressurized, returning unused water back to the river.”

Stark said the project required nine months of oversight in planning, design, purchasing and installation. The team had to factor in everything from the lead time associated with ordering the pump to how to keep sediment from going into the system (and how to flush it out when it does).

“We’re excited now because the system is installed and ready. Once some maintenance work is completed, the fire water system will be active at all points in time. If a fire were to happen, the facility will have immediate water to the trouble area, which can save assets and potentially lives,” he said.

For Stark, that feeling of seeing a project through from start to finish is what keeps him so excited about his work.

“When we started that project, it was a few sentences about what the plant wanted. That was our starting point. So to go from that very high-level scope to all the complex details, plans and coordination that went into this project – and to be able to stand on the dock and watch this come together – is an unbelievably rewarding experience.”

Looking at his industry as a whole, Stark said the grand challenge project engineers face is lean project management, which challenges engineers to design projects in ways that generate less waste, are more efficient and produce more value.

“With the state of our economy, everybody is working very hard to do more with less resources. We currently have a goal to execute our project ten percent better than our peers by 2020. To do that, we will have to look very closely at our work processes and only use the tools that add value. Every project is unique, so doing this is not as easy as you would think. I believe this will be one of the big differentiators in project management in the coming years,” he said.

This tendency toward lean project management is something students going into the mechanical engineering or project engineering fields will need to understand, but Stark said that communication skills are just as important for emerging engineers.

“Learn what it takes to work with and motivate others. Whether you plan to be in a very technical career, such as research and development, or on the management side like I am, the ability to work in teams and to convey your thoughts and ideas will be extremely valuable to you,” he said.

Stark also suggested that students seriously consider their professional licensure path, and that they start planning for it while they are still in school.

“It’s something you’ll want to take seriously as you go into your career. If I had it to do again, I’d have taken my FE right out of school and my PE as soon as I could four years after that,” he said. “I think there’s definite value in having your PE working as an engineer in industry. It means something. You never have to take these exams, but they make a big difference in the types of positions you can get and the type of work you can oversee.”

Stark resides in Charleston with his wife, WVU Tech graduate Andrea Ard, ‘08. When he’s not overseeing plant projects, he’s an avid hunter and gunsmith. He’s also a WVU football and basketball fan.

He and Andrea are both active in the WVU Tech community, where Stark is a lifetime member of the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association. Stark also serves on the mechanical engineering department’s advisory board for ABET accreditation and the Phi Kappa Tau Board of Governors.

He says that connection to the school and its alumni have played an important role in his life, and encourages students to stay in touch with those who helped them make it to graduation day.

“Networking is very important. Join the alumni association. There are many opportunities to meet other alumni who may be established in your industry. You’ll be surprised at how meaningful it is to build these relationships. Not only have I received many job opportunities via networking, I have met many friends along the way,” he said.

23 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 2 of our 5-part series introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program.
Optimized-Tavon Mechanical engineering student, Tavon Johnson.

Tavon Johnson grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and it’s in Charm City where he first discovered his passion for mechanical engineering.

As a high school student considering his career options, Johnson participated in a handful of STEM and robotics programs. He credits them with sparking his interest in the field of engineering.

“Through those programs, I was able to learn a lot about STEM and what engineering encompassed. I learned about mechanical engineering and how engineering drives the everyday things that impact society and the quality of life we have come to expect,” he said.

After deciding on a career in mechanical engineering, Johnson said he spent months researching and visiting college campuses. He was attracted to WVU Tech because of the small campus and the fact that he felt an immediate connection to the faculty and administration that met with him on his first visit.

Now a senior in the mechanical engineering program, Johnson is in the final phase of his education: he’s learning how to apply the fundamentals of engineering to real-world problems.

“At first, as an engineering student, you’re learning principles and basic laws that are the foundations of engineering. The structure of materials. Statics and dynamics. Then you’re trying to master those laws to figure out how things are operating in the world. Finally, you start performing research to prove those laws and to see how you can apply what you’ve learned to real-life situations,” he said.

In addition to his coursework and research, Johnson serves as president emeritus of the WVU Tech student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is an active member of the Pi Tau Sigma mechanical engineering honors society. He is involved in the WVU Tech Student Government Association and the Student Activities Board. He also works in WVU Tech’s Student Support Services program as a peer mentor and tutor.

Johnson is known on campus for his leadership in organizing a campus-wide student design exposition. The expo highlights the research and design work of WVU Tech engineering students and invites attendees from regional business and industry to network with these students and discuss their work. Johnson launched the first expo in 2015 and is now working on the second exposition to be held in late April.

Johnson graduates in May, and he’s currently studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, the first of two required exams graduates must take if they wish to become a licensed professional engineer. As he looks beyond graduation, he said that he faces two career paths: defense and robotics technology or construction and project management.

The first path is driven largely by Johnson’s interest in robotics and the summer he spent working as an intern for a cybersecurity firm in Maryland.

“In my internship, I learned a lot about how engineering products help the men and women who are serving overseas. I can’t go out there and do what they do, but if I can aid them with the engineering knowledge and ability I do have, I think that would be very beneficial,” he said.

The construction and project management career course stems from Johnson’s experience working summers with a crew that performed line striping on state roads, highways, crosswalks and shopping centers. He said the experience allowed him to cross paths with the many types of professionals involved in construction projects.

“That has always amazed me, seeing how a project is built from nothing – from an empty field, for instance – into something beautiful and functional where people will be shopping, educating their children or curing diseases. That’s why I’m drawn to the field of project management,” he said.

For Johnson, the most exciting aspect of mechanical engineering is the way innovation within the field can impact someone’s life.

“I think that’s one of the most fascinating things, not only about mechanical engineering, but about engineering in general – being able to make people’s lives so much easier just because you’re able to see complex problems in a way that they don’t,” he said. “That’s not to say engineers are smarter, but because they’ve gained that background knowledge and they understand those fundamentals, they can see how things are working and how to make them work in a better way.”

Johnson said that he and his fellow mechanical engineering students have a lot to look forward to in terms of cutting-edge work in the field, including autonomous vehicles and drone technology.

“Drones are breaking ground every day. There are drones in development that can lift and transport human beings. They are delivering packages. They are being used in filmmaking and in land surveying,” Johnson said.

“There is a lot of mechanical engineering that goes into this technology. We’re looking at blades in flight, and how air and friction is impacting the wings. We’re examining things like material strength, weight and mechanics. Mechanical engineers are involved in the testing process and their work ensures that the structures and components of these machines are sound. That they’ll actually work the way they were designed to work,” he said.

For students following Johnson’s path into mechanical engineering, he paints a picture of an industry where there is a great range of work to be done.

“Mechanical engineering is one of the widest fields in engineering. We can go into so many areas of specialization or industries that you might not associate with engineering. If you’re building an engineering team, there’s almost always a space for a mechanical,” he said.

“Just make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. Don’t enroll in any degree program because you think it will be easy or because you’ll make money. Do it because it’s something you love. If this field is what you want and you’re willing to fight for it, it’s completely worth it,” he said.

22 Feb
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs. Part 1 of our 5-part series introduces Golden Bears from WVU Tech’s electrical engineering program.
Optimized-Wright Hank Electrical engineering alumnus, Hank Wright, P.E., ‘68.

WVU Tech graduate Hank Wright, P.E., ‘68, grew up in St. Albans, West Virginia, and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the years between the two, his nearly five decades of work has impacted projects around the world.

Wright uncovered his skills in electrical engineering with the help of his high school math teacher, who immediately tied his mathematical talents and interests to the field.

“My math supervisor said I should go into electrical engineering. I didn’t know anything about electricity. All I knew was that you plug stuff in and it works. That was the extent of my understanding. I don’t know what she knew, but she was right. It was the field for me,” he said.

Wright went on to study the discipline at WVU Tech and graduated from the University in 1968. During his time at Tech, Wright worked summers at Appalachian Power. After graduation, he began his career with an engineering position at Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical).

His independent spirit, however, led him to seek various types of work throughout his career, including the launch of a first-of-its-kind process control computer systems group within an engineering consulting firm.

“A client of ours was struggling with a control system and asked us to help, so we went on site and lived with the system for six weeks. We fixed it, and off of that experience, we decided to start a process control group,” said Wright.

“We were doing all kinds of fascinating work. Programmable controllers. Human machine interface – we just called it computer graphics back then. I was able to guide this group for a dozen years and worked with just about every industry on the planet,” he said.

One of those industries was aluminum production, which provided Wright an opportunity to work on one of the most memorable projects of his career.

In the 1970s, a metals manufacturer was constructing two massive smelter facilities at an aluminum refinery in Venezuela. The $1.3 billion project required a process control system that would allow operators to monitor activity along seven “potlines,” or series of massive vats that use electricity and carbon to extract aluminum from aluminum oxide.

“These things were huge. There were 180 in series at four volts apiece and the potline operated at a load of 176,000 amps. That’s a little bigger than the socket in the wall,” he said. [For reference, the average American home is serviced at between 100 and 200 amps].

“We did the computer control system that optimized those potlines. It was a lot of energy in one place, and we had seven of them. That’s over a million amps of energy. We hadn’t done much of anything in that industry, but we didn’t have reason to believe we couldn’t. We designed the system, built it, sent it to Venezuela, started it up and it worked,” he said.

Wright said the Venezuela project stands out to him because of the size and complexity of the endeavor, and because he was able to work on aspects of the project that were unique at the time.

“The potlines were a high electric field environment, so you couldn’t use most electronics out there because they wouldn’t work very well. To overcome this, we used the PA system and broadcast announcements using synthesized speech as a way to communicate which of the pots in the series was acting up. The system shined light through Mylar film that was etched with a speech pattern barcode. It had a female voice. I’d never seen that before, but we did it, and it worked,” he said.

Wright said that features like synthesized speech pale in comparison to the technological advances in the modern electrical engineering scene. He thinks this technological integration is something students going into electrical engineering will be looking forward to as their biggest opportunity and their biggest challenge.

“Smart grid, plugin vehicles, self-driving vehicles. Those are some of the things on the cutting-edge that engineers will have an opportunity to work with in the future,” he said.

“The real challenge in the industry is how to overcome the problems you’re creating by advancing technology. More and more computers are doing more and more things, but sometimes at the expense of security. New engineers are going to have to find that balance between making things more advanced and protecting those advancements from new threats,” he said.

In addition to working within the movement to integrate computers into electrical systems, Wright said the next generation of electrical engineers will need to understand that engineering is about more than research and design.

“You’ll need people skills in this path. If you’re really successful, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to manage people, projects, time and money. You’ll need to be able to communicate, so prepare for that as you go into this. As a successful engineer, you’re not going to spend your days at the same desk every day,” he said.

Engineering graduates heading into the working world will also need to be lifelong learners, Wright said. They’ll need to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles of Practice and Engineering exam to become a professional engineer (PE). They will also need to take continuing courses on the various codes that govern fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering.

It’s a long road, but for Wright, it’s a proven path that produces quality engineers. He said it also makes for some interesting career experiences.

“There’s this thing about experience – you can’t get it until you get it. There are no shortcuts, so you need to find a career that can offer you a variety of opportunities. Engineering is a career that can do that,” he said. “I’ve got 47 years of experience, not one year of experience 47 times.”

These days, Wright is in a state of what he calls “semi-retirement,” where he takes on projects with an engineering firm in the Raleigh area. He’s also an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Solar Energy Society (ASES).

A lifelong athlete, Wright spent some years as a middle-distance runner and coach, a United States Volleyball Association volleyball player and a Sports Car Club of America road rally driver. He’s also a member of the United States Golf Association (USGA). Wright is an accomplished drummer as well, and spends a few nights a month with his band playing gigs in the Raleigh area where he lives with his wife, Paulette.

He was recently elected president of the board of directors of the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association and is advising a philanthropic group that takes on energy, water, healthcare and education projects in developing nations. He also likes to maintain relationships with those he has mentored throughout the years.

“I like mentoring. It’s one of the most rewarding things about what I do in my profession. Challenging them. Showing them that there might be a better way to do something. I still get calls all the time asking ‘what do I need to do here, Hank?’ It’s very rewarding to keep them moving toward the goal,” he said.

Wright credits his desire to give back to his unique career path and his time at Tech.

“Tech is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. Tech gave me the tools to live well, have a lot of fun, do some rewarding work and to be successful,” he said.

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