At The Lyle School Of Engineering, ‘Play’ Is Hard Work

Geoffrey Orsak loves it when students come over to Caruth Hall to play. As dean of the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering, Orsak oversees SMU’s newest intellectual playground, which he calls a “sandbox for innovation.”

“At the heart and soul of this building is the joy of play, the joy of creation,” he says.

The serious intent behind this comment will reshape the engineering profession for the 21st century. “It’s a full-on rethinking of what engineering should be,” Orsak says. Gone is the stereotype of the back-office tinkerer who communicates strictly in technical jargon. A new breed of engineer has emerged – versatile young men and women who get their geek on when the job calls for it, but whose vision and talent stretch across disciplines and national borders.

“One thing that has limited the appeal of the discipline is students felt they may be boxed in, but the reality is that they go off and do amazing things across every spectrum of our economy,” he adds. “And they lead, too: More Fortune 500 CEOs have engineering degrees than any other undergraduate degree.”

Today’s engineers are asked to dream bigger dreams – on a shorter timeline and with a tighter budget – than ever before. The Lyle School’s reality-based curricula, focused institutes and centers, new research initiatives and real-world projects mean next-generation engineers leave SMU with the imagination to ask “what if” and the knowledge and skills to answer the question with remarkable solutions.

Infinity And Beyond

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Bobby B. Lyle ’67, for whom the Engineering School was named in 2008, calls it “the little school that could.”

Established in 1925, the Lyle School is among the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest, with eight undergraduate and 29 graduate programs offered through five core academic departments.

The centerpiece of a building trifecta – the Jerry R. Junkins Building opened in August 2002 and the J. Lindsay Embrey Building was dedicated in September 2006 – Caruth Hall stands as a brick-and-mortar embodiment of can-do spirit. It’s the launching point for what Lyle calls “a transformational journey with the express intent of creating a new kind of engineering school, the best on the planet.”

Orsak started fueling that trajectory soon after joining SMU in 1997 as an
associate professor of electrical engineering. In 2002 he was named executive director of what is now the Caruth Institute. In that role he developed several award-winning programs that continue to grow:

  • The Infinity Project, a partnership with Texas Instruments that brings engineering curricula into the classrooms in over 40 states and six countries.
  • Visioneering, a playful and substantive learning event that gives middle school students the opportunity to be engineers for a day.
  • The Gender Parity Initiative, which aims to attract girls and young women to engineering. Women made up 37 percent of last year’s incoming SMU engineering class compared to the national average of approximately 19 percent.

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Orsak, who was recently named to a national energy policy study committee by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, became dean in 2004.

In 2008 he recruited a longtime mentor, Delores M. Etter, as the first Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair in Engineering Education and Caruth Institute director. Etter came to SMU from the electrical engineering faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Her distinguished academic career is complemented by service in the U.S. Department of Defense as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition and as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Science and Technology.

While directing the Navy’s acquisitions program at the Pentagon, she realized that academia provides a powerful platform for service to country. “One of our most serious challenges was finding the right people with technical skills,” Etter says.

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The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works™ Program at the Lyle School, a first-ever partnership with the renowned research center, is a key effort to prepare tomorrow’s engineering innovators. Housed in the Caruth Institute, the program borrows from its namesake’s playbook with Immersion Design Experiences (IDEs): Working in small teams under tight deadlines, engineering students and faculty find feasible solutions to real client projects.

“Innovation is hard to teach,” Etter says. “That’s why opportunities for students to work together, come up with a solution and test it are so important.”

In the first Skunk Works IDE in January, a team of students developed a prototype system that converts an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) now under development by Lockheed Martin and Karem Aircraft into an aerial firefighter. The system has water pumps, a tank and logic that enable it to hover over water, deploy a pump automatically, fill the tank and retract the pump.

During the project, a novel sensor that indicates when the UAV’s lowered pump is in the water was created.

“What makes this special is that commercial water sensors cost around $200. The students used free scraps to make their sensor,” explains Nathan Huntoon, director of the school’s new Innovation Gymnasium. Huntoon, who received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from SMU in 2009, develops IDE projects and supervises the student teams.

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