Andrew Carnegie once said, “We learn by doing.” Senior metallurgical and materials engineering students at the University of Alabama are doing just that thanks to two engineers from the Redstone Test Center.
This support began during the fall semester of 2018, when Suzanne McLendon, an Alabama graduate, was contacted to help provide guidance for a senior design course for materials engineering students.
“Typically this course has representatives from industry who provide guidance to the students for a yearlong senior project. In the middle of the first semester, the department head reached out to me asking if we could help, so we jumped in at the last minute in the middle of that semester,” she said.
McLendon enlisted the help of co-worker Jennifer Dennis. That first semester they advised the students in selecting projects that would include working with exotic metals, things like magnesium or titanium, materials not typical in a classroom environment.
“We oversaw their projects, the students came up with their budget, and the department purchased the material,” Dennis said. “We supervised their progress remotely and visited the campus a few times that semester when they gave presentations.”
The first course went so well, the RTC engineers were invited back to assist in a second course, this time, being on hand for all of the first semester, which was more of a planning phase for the students and included lectures from the material analysis experts.
“On a day-to-day basis, we analyze material to make sure it’s functioning properly, behaving properly and meeting the minimum requirements for that design,” Dennis said.
“If it could be a loss of aircraft, mission or people, we investigate those failures,” McLendon added.
Failure analysis is a field that doesn’t have a specific degree that would directly support this type of testing. In other words, this career path requires years of on-the-job training, or beneficial internships and projects while in college.
Most engineers working in the field of failure analysis do have degrees in material engineering, but that doesn’t mean you graduate knowing much about the analysis aspect of the field.
“There’s not a formal degree for failure analysis, it’s definitely an experienced-based field, a niche area if you will,” Dennis said.
McLendon gained research experience while an undergrad at Alabama participating in a summer program, working at a clean room on thin films and working at NASA Glenn as a graduate student. Dennis, while attending the University of Florida for her undergrad and graduate degrees, interned at NASA, learning about materials, corrosion and mechanical testing.
Serving as advisers to these future engineers can also serve as a recruiting opportunity when these students head to the workforce, and possibly to the materials analysis lab at RTC. The timing could be just right.
Component Test and Analysis Division Chief Jennifer Oberle said the workload is expected to increase over the next five years. “One of our missions, especially in the work Jennifer and Suzanne are doing, is determining failure mechinisms for flight-critical aircraft components that could affect safety of flight, or life,” she said.
The mentorship project has gone so well, it may continue for the foreseeable future.
Dennis commented on the feedback received from the first semester. “One of the best things about it, was the good feedback we got from the students. The professor was very complimentary to us all year, but it was really rewarding at the end when the students told us they enjoyed it and all they learned from it,” she said.
“It was really personal to me, because that was my home department,” McLendon said. “You always want to go back and see that the students leaving the department are going on to do good work. It sounds cheesy, but they are the future. It’s an investment. And we hope that one day they do the same.”