New era dawns for STEM majors inside Becton Hall labs

Aaron uses FMS in Becton lab

Aaron Beasley, a junior studying electrical engineering, sets up and turns on a flexible manufacturing system in the Advanced Mechatronics Lab in Becton Hall on FDU’s Metropolitan Campus. He and Nathalie Peralta, also a junior electrical engineering major, programmed and wired the machines themselves during the summer and in the Fall 2016 semester. (Photos by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

Becton Hall has become the hub for specialized laboratories at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus.

The STEM (science, math, engineering and technology) majors working in the labs are breaking it all down, asking: How does that work?

“With engineering,” says junior Ryan Choy, an electrical engineering major from Sparta, N.J., “you really have to want to know how it works and how to make it better or safer. How do I make it more efficient?”

Becton Hall now has a total of 18 labs, eight new state-of-the-art facilities and 10 upgraded laboratories. Most of the renovations and work was completed under a “multi-million dollar state-funded project to enhance New Jersey’s high-tech workforce and competitiveness,” says Alfredo Tan, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Gildart Haase School of Computer Sciences and Engineering.

Nathalie Peralta and Ryan Choy with robots

Nathalie Peralta runs a computer program to control a Nao humanoid robot, while Ryan Choy gives a wave to test its sensory capabilities. Both are juniors and electrical engineering majors.

“Engineering really has an impact on a lot of people’s lives,” says junior and electrical engineering major Nathalie Peralta, of Cedar Grove, N.J. “It’s very broad. You can go into any kind of specific [engineering] field, as long as you have an interest in science and math. It’s a really good major.”

The School of Computer Sciences and Engineering offers undergraduate-level degrees in civil and electrical engineering; civil, construction, electrical and mechanical engineering technology; computer science; information technology; and mathematics, as well as graduate-level degrees in computer science; computer and electrical engineering; management information systems; and electronic commerce. And more STEM programming is on the way: a mechanical engineering degree for undergraduates and a cybersecurity and information assurance degree for graduate students, coming in the Fall 2017 semester.

“Students learn best when they use multiple senses and actively apply the theorems and concepts that they have studied from the lecture in the labs,” says Tan. “The labs also enable them to explore, experiment, and test their own ideas beyond what they have learned in the classroom, producing independent, creative thinkers.”

Ryan and Nathalie with instruments

Students designed and printed a violin, held here by Nathalie Peralta, and made with acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic on a 3-D printer in the Additive Manufacturing Lab. It needs a tune-up, according to the students, but the instrument plays well, similar to a more traditional one made of wood and ebony. They printed the violin in three sections, with each part taking eight hours to print. Now they’re working on a ukulele, the base of which Ryan Choy is holding.

In the labs, students fashion items with 3-D printers, including a fully functional violin and a ukulele, and with subtractive technology, such as computer numeric control machines, they mill chess pieces to practice computer numerical control (CNC) machining techniques and procedures. They set up manufacturing lines, learn programming languages, practice wiring machines, design plans and run the equipment.

“Currently we’re working on designing a micro mouse — a robotic mouse — that we’re trying to get to the center of a maze in the shortest amount of time possible,” says junior electrical engineering major Aaron Beasley. He and Choy attended the same high school in Sparta, N.J. “I started out thinking I wanted to be an electrician,” says Beasley. Both ultimately opted to come to FDU and study engineering. “When I started working in the labs, it made me more confident about working in engineering, in general. It made me hopeful, and offered inspiration.”

Peralta found her own motivation in her family. “My grandfather was a computer engineer,” she says. “He encouraged my aunt to be one. My aunt was my biggest role model. She studied electrical engineering in college and that was so inspiring.”

Nathalie holds the 3-D fish

This fish, in student Nathalie Peralta’s hand, which sways and moves, was made on a 3-D printer and is just one interconnected piece.

When these students aren’t working on the machines on their own projects, they’re giving tours at open houses, demonstrating the equipment and answering prospective student and parent questions.

“Definitely find friends to study with,” Choy recommends. “You’ve got to be able to communicate. From engineering to computer science majors, it’s really all about the communicating because we do a lot of group work. In most companies, you work in a group.”

Beasley adds, “To get people interested, and having the satisfaction of designing something that you can use yourself, or that benefits everybody, helping people out and doing anything that’s useful in some way, that’s what’s exciting to me.”

The labs mimic real settings that students will encounter at internships and in future occupations.

“These are complicated machines. If you don’t work with them constantly, you will forget them,” says Choy. “We brush up on them every month.”

Currently, Choy is focused on perfecting the plastic chess pieces. “You make chess pieces with subtractive [equipment]. It’s easier to get it smoother with subtractive because of the tools. You have to know how to design it. You take a rectangular block and shave it down,” he says.

Students with CNC machine

Nathalie Peralta, Ryan Choy and Aaron Beasley (from L to R) demonstrate computer numerical control (CNC) machining techniques in the CNC Manufacturing Lab.

Meanwhile, Beasley and Peralta just rewired one of the flexible manufacturing systems, which looks like a conveyor belt of sorts. In the pharmaceutical industry, larger versions of these types of machines can be used to count, standardize and fill medicine bottles with the exact, correct amount of pills. They’re hoping to get the machine in good working order this semester. The duo is also working on the micro mouse. Beasley took a microprocessor class to learn programming and they have plans to 3-D print the case and wheels, the body of the mouse.

“That’s the thing: if you come to college and don’t take advantage of the labs, then you’re missing out on the experience and the foot in the door to get into other jobs,” says Beasley.

Tan confirms that early student exposure to the labs leads to better-prepared graduates. “They are exposed to latest technologies and modern lab techniques that not only prepare them well for internship and employment, but also give them a competitive edge in the job market,” he says.

Choy and Peralta aren’t thinking quite that far ahead, preferring to focus on the projects and learning at hand, even as they look for internships. But Beasley has his sights set on something big.

“I’m very interested in space, and have been ever since I was a little kid — anything to do with designing ships and satellites. My hope for the future is to go into space,” says Beasley. “There’s this nebula, and some of the chemical components that make it up are the same ones that give raspberries their taste. The whole universe is full of interesting things. It would be nice to go and see those.”