MARCH 2014, Page 15
VMI Institute Report
ME Initiative Encourages Cadets to
Apply Their Skills
The old saying that an inventor
shou l d be ab l e t o bu i l d a
better mousetrap just might be
appropriate in VMI’s mechanical
engineering department – but
instead of mousetraps, 3rd Class
cadets in that department are
building devices to crush soda cans
“To be a good eng i nee r,
you have to marry theory with
application,” said Col. Jon-Michael
Hardin, professor of mechanical
engineering. To this end, a
recent initiative in the department
encourages cadets to apply their
engineering skills to real-world
projects from the beginning of their
“Engineering education can be challenging, for sure,” continued
Hardin, who has been teaching at VMI since 1998. “But early on, I
realized that what was missing from it was just howmuch fun engineering
is. …The practice of engineering is just a hoot. It’s just plain fun.”
After becoming chair of the department in 2010, Hardin wasted
little time in revamping the curriculum toward more application, and
hopefully more enjoyment as well,
through an experiential learning
approach. By the fall of 2011, a
small group of 4th Class cadets
was building hovercrafts, which
travel along land or water on a
cushion of air. By the next year, that
project was expanded to include all
4th Class mechanical engineering
This year’s 3rd Class cadets
got their first taste of hands-on
engineering during the hovercraft
project last year. This past fall,
they learned about statics, or
the relationship between forces
in a structure, and used their
newfound knowledge to design can
crushers. Now, as part of their solid
mechanics class, they are working in the shop to build them.
“[The cadets are] invested in it,” said Col. Jay Sullivan, professor of
mechanical engineering, who taught statics in the fall and is now teaching
the solid mechanics class. “It’s their own design, their own analysis.”
The can crusher “is not a book problem,” he added. “It’s their own
Alexander Swafford ’16 and Dakota Scott ’16 work on their can
– VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.
Cadet Relishes Turning Design into Reality
Fascinated from an early age with how things work, Cadet Daniel
Flowers III ’16 entered VMI certain of his choice to major in mechanical
Now in the second semester of his 3rd Class year, Flowers says he’s
benefited from the department’s increasing emphasis on the application
of engineering principles, not just theory.
“[The department is] absolutely headed in the right direction with
all of the design-based classes,” said Flowers. “Having the theory itself
is good. But having the ability to problem-solve is unmatched.”
Thanks to the recent redesign of the curriculum, Flowers has had
plenty of opportunities to do just that.
Along with his fellow 3rd Class cadets, Flowers is building a can
crusher, which crushes soda cans in preparation for recycling. Last
year, the 4th Class cadets built a hovercraft.
“It was a creativity thing,” said Flowers of his experience with the
hovercraft. “There were so many designs and so many different ways
to do it. There’s just the bare minimum, but then there’s that next
level of thinking, to where you can make something better, make
something more effective, and in that case, just make it cooler and
Similarly, Flowers has found that there’s more than one way to crush
a can. “There was the obvious design, … but after talking to a bunch
of the other groups, I realized that everyone’s design was pretty much
different,” he observed.
“It helps getting opposite opinions,” he said.
The Flowers family is no stranger to engineering, or to VMI.
Flowers’ grandfather, the late Daniel F. Flowers ’40, earned both the
Jackson-Hope Medal and the French Medal, given for proficiency in
mathematics. His identical twin brother, the late Fred F. Flowers ’40,
matriculated alongside him and also earned a Jackson-Hope Medal
and the French Medal.
After graduating from VMI with a degree in electrical engineering,
Daniel F. Flowers went on to earn both a master’s and a doctor of
science degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. Later, he served
on VMI’s Board of Visitors, as well as the governing boards of the VMI
Foundation and the VMI Alumni Association.
“He was an amazing man, and cared a lot about this Institute,” said
Now nearing the halfway mark in his cadetship, Daniel Flowers III
can already see the benefits of his mechanical engineering coursework.
“I can now look at something and see why it was designed that way,
and if there are flaws in it, I can tell,” he said.
After VMI, Flowers hopes to attend graduate school at Georgia Tech,
his father’s alma mater, or perhaps MIT or Virginia Tech.
“My dream job is to do design engineering at a defense firm or
weapons company,” he said.
Please see page 18