May 20, 2011
DALLAS (SMU) – National Instruments has joined Lockheed Martin in supporting the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering’s Innovation Gym – the physical heart of SMU’s program to immerse students in real world engineering problems under deadline pressures.
“Imagine a space where students can work in multidisciplinary teams without any artificial barriers to creativity,” said Lyle School dean Geoffrey Orsak. “Not only can they reconfigure the space to fit any project, but our students can brainstorm and build prototypes 24 hours a day without having to get out of the way for someone else’s lab or project. Creativity without interruption is a gift, and we have National Instruments and Lockheed Martin to thank for helping us provide this capability to our students.” The companies’ financial and in-kind supports are granting students access to an enviable level of professional expertise, mentoring opportunities, software and hardware, Orsak said.
Located on the first floor of SMU’s Caruth Hall, the Innovation Gym houses the Skunk Works® Lab, modeled after Lockheed Martin’s iconic and top-secret workspace. SMU is the first university to offer a program that teaches the storied Skunk Works® approach to problem solving that has resulted in aviation marvels like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The glass-walled, open-view design space is an interactive environment where students learn by experience.
Departing from traditional classroom and lab design, there are no desks or lecterns in the Innovation Gym, and no fixed workstations. The gym provides more than 800 square feet of design space, reconfigurable to meet the needs of a wide variety of projects. Student teams organize their space by using tape along the floor – not walls. The only fixed portion of the lab is an area set up for large fabrication equipment such as drill presses, power saws and a 3D printing machine.
Student projects in the Innovation Gym come from corporate sponsors rather than professors. Companies like Lockheed Martin provide student teams with a deliberately difficult problem, challenging teams to bypass traditional engineering methods and management models to get creative. The philosophy that underscores any project in the gym is based on what has made Lockheed Martin’s namesake Skunk Works® so successful – its round-the-clock access to the right tools and talent needed to solve real problems.
“There are times I have been working down here for three days straight, only leaving for food and classes,” said Andrew George, a 20-year-old Lyle School junior. “We have cots and sleeping bags,” he said, nodding toward a bulging closet. The opportunity for undergraduates like him to do their own research has been the biggest benefit the Innovation Gym has delivered, George said.
“I don’t do grunt work for anyone here,” George said. “Everything is a project. Right now, we’re trying to trick a GPS device into thinking it is somewhere else. And I learn a lot down here, because I have to do everything myself. It’s fantastic!”
During Innovation Gym competitions, some student teams are given no more than a week to design a solution to a sticky problem, build a prototype and demonstrate it. National Instruments provides industry-leading hardware and LabVIEW software for students to complete their engineering challenge in a very short period of time. As part of the competition process, students present and defend their working solution to the corporate sponsor that has provided their particular challenge.
More than 60 students have participated in Skunk Works® projects at SMU over the past two years. Nearly half of the participants have been minority students and 35 percent have been women. Most of the students seeking the Skunk Works® experience have been first and second-year undergraduate students who typically see only the inside of classrooms and sterile labs at other universities.
“It is well established that students learn at an accelerated rate when their education is relevant and as hands-on as possible,” said Ray Almgren, vice president of product marketing for National Instruments. “The Innovation Gym brings an exciting hands-on and project-based learning environment to engineering education. We are very pleased to help the Lyle School of Engineering at SMU further solidify its stance as one of the best engineering schools in the nation.”
“Our investment and involvement with this program already has paid off tremendously,” said Frank J. Cappuccio, executive vice president, Lockheed Martin. “The innovations, and more importantly, the solutions we are receiving from these students are invaluable to Lockheed Martin, and to the students themselves. Having National Instruments as a co-supporter of the program will now give students access to the same cutting edge system design tools that many of our engineers use at Lockheed Martin.”
SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools.