Innovation in Action

Inside Room 210 of the Bannan Building lies the future of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) education: the new Francis Wood, S.J. and Nick Arvanitidis, PhD Innovation Lab.

Written by Tracy DeCroce
Photography by Yosef Kalinko
May 17, 2017

Inside Room 210 of the Bannan Building lies the future of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) education at Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE).

The new Francis Wood, S.J. and Nick Arvanitidis, PhD Innovation Lab has specialized equipment not found anywhere else on campus. There’s a laser cutter that could, for example, cut the pieces for a robot chassis on which a student might mount gearboxes, motors and microcontrollers. Using the lab’s 3D printer, students could then fabricate the necessary fixtures to hold various sensors. All assembled, the completed project might be a robot or some other student design.

Amid it all, bringing a high-voltage energy all his own, is Richard Bankhead, SU’s first “Innovator in Residence.” As he sees it, the lab offers much more than the sum total of its super cool parts.

“It’s a safe space for students to come in and learn by doing,” Bankhead says. “The big idea is that for students to be successful in any coursework, prior experience is paramount to understanding the material….The difficulty in electrical and computer engineering is that you are learning about things that can’t be seen. Our goal is to help students engage and see some of the things that are hidden to them.”

To illustrate his point, Bankhead, a chemical engineer, pulls out a littleBits Kit and clicks together Lego-like circuit elements. By changing the order, he can produce light or sound or alter their amplification. For many students, these littleBits could be their first step in manipulating the invisible tools of the trade.

The Innovation Lab, which opened earlier this year, draws inspiration from the national “maker movement,” a technology-based subculture that creates do-it-yourself projects.

Maker spaces engage a “touch-screen generation” that has little experience with mechanical devices—things that used to give young engineers a tactile reference point for how things work, Bankhead says. 

What makes SU’s lab different from those at other colleges and universities is how it’s embedded within the ECE department and will align with departmental instruction,” says Gary Fernandes, ECE department laboratory manager.

ECE Department Chair and Associate Professor Agnieszka Miguel says the lab gives students the opportunity for hands-on use of emerging technology and hardware.

“The Father Wood Lab is a collaborative studio space for both informal, project-driven, self-directed learning and projects that will be integrated throughout the curriculum,” Miguel says.

Bankhead envisions first- and second-year students using the lab to augment their textbook-heavy physics and math coursework. Having the chance to “play” in the lab will help them engage with the demanding subject matter and provide a context for what they are learning.

For juniors and seniors, Bankhead sees the lab offering something different—the chance to develop their own projects or work on senior design projects. That experience gives students an edge when applying for internships or jobs because they can demonstrate their knowledge by talking about self-initiated projects that they have worked on. 

“Employers seek independent learners with engineering-related experiences outside of their prescribed course work,” Bankhead says.

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