The ink had barely dried on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s approval for the MTSU mechatronics engineering program when things began to stir in the university’s Department of Engineering Technology.
Telephones began ringing and emails began arriving in the offices of department chair Walter Boles and faculty member Ahad Nasab less than 24 hours after the late July approval.
Nasab, who is the program’s coordinator, received 12 emails and phone calls within a day of the commission’s final OK. Several days later, he was meeting with students extremely interested in jumping into a bachelor’s degree program that makes MTSU a full-fledged engineering school.
“It’s, quite honestly, a game-changer,” said MTSU alumnus and industry partner Jimmy Davis, owner of Murfreesboro-based The Davis Groupe and a member and past president of the Engineering Technology Advisory Board.
“Now MTSU is a true engineering school. They have a true engineering degree. … The engineering technology department is taking it to the next level.”
Mechatronics is a design process that includes a combination of mechanical, electrical, control and computer programming. The mechatronics engineering program is based on a three-level international certification program created by Siemens AG, a German engineering company.
A perfect example of a mechatronic system is a surgical robot, which performs precision mechanical work under sophisticated electronic and sensory control.
Watch a video about the mechatronics program below.
Davis’ company supplies machinery, tools and parts to clients that include Toyota, General Motors and Nissan, among others. Boles called Davis “a very strong supporter of our department and mechatronics.”
“It’s exciting. We know how to proceed from here,” Boles said. “There’s more work for us, but we’re willing to do that because we are public servants and we need to get it done.”
There’s a high demand for skilled workers to maintain and repair mechatronic systems. People trained and certified in mechatronics engineering can expect high growth opportunities and wages.
“This is not one of those things where if you build it, they will come,” Nasab said of the increasing student interest. “They are already here.”
Some 50 to 100 students are expected to be in the program by the end of fall 2013 “because the first-year coursework will transfer into the mechatronics engineering program with no problem,” Boles said.
“We should be able to start offering the mechatronics engineering courses beginning in the spring.”
Currently, 595 undergraduate and 25 graduate students are enrolled in engineering technology, which is one of 10 departments in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.
Nasab said the department is requesting $500,000 for mechatronic and automation equipment — “complete systems, which is different than the equipment we have now — to be housed initially in one of the Voorhies Engineering Technology laboratory spaces.
MTSU alumnus and state Sen. Bill Ketron has a unique perspective of this new program as a small business owner and a member of the Engineering Technology Advisory Board.
“It (mechatronics) fills a niche that a lot of students have not been able to fill, because it was never available,” Ketron said.
A key aspect of the new program is the range of community and worldwide partnerships involved. Collaborators include Motlow College, Rutherford County Schools top administrators and Oakland and Stewarts Creek high schools, elected officials, and industries, including Nissan North America Inc., Bridgestone Americas Tire Operation, Yates Services and Siemens.
“Industry leaders are the ones who pushed it,” Nasab said.
Ketron said the economic impact of the program will be significant.
“Once we start training these young people and the industries and manufacturing concerns realize there’s a good, trained and educated workforce for their needs, they’ll start locating here or not even think about pulling up and moving to some other location,” he said.
One student’s path to the mechatronics program
Michigan native Dallas Trahan planned to study business at Michigan State University. He eventually dropped out, took a year off from school and moved with a friend to Nashville, where he found full-time work with a soft drink company. His friend did not find work and returned to Michigan.
Trahan, 20, said he started attending MTSU “because it was affordable and close by.”
His MTSU academic interest had been electro-mechanical engineering — until he learned in April that MTSU was considering adding mechatronics engineering. When he heard the program was official, he scheduled a meeting with Nasab.
“I want to be a person who can do everything,” Trahan said. “Mechatronics seems to be the way to go. A lot more opportunities could arise; a lot more doors can open than with just an engineering technology degree. With mechatronics, you can do what you want.”
Nasab told Trahan he expects “a lot of students will switch from other majors after this year, and a majority of them are currently between their sophomore and junior year.”
Trahan said he believes mechatronics engineering “will be the most valuable degree I could get here.” He received a draft copy of the curriculum before it was approved and admitted that it was “a little intimidating at first. I had to go back and forth, but I believe it’s the right path for me.”
Boles told Trahan that mechatronics students will take a one-hour course to prepare for the fundamentals of engineering exam that engineering seniors usually take in their last semester.
Boles said the exam is part of a two-step process for obtaining a professional engineering license. After graduation, several years of experience is required before the individual can take the licensure exam.
“We want you guys to hit a home run with it,” Boles said of the engineering exam. “We want you to graduate with a higher passing rate than at any engineering program in the state.”
Nasab added that the engineering fundamentals test is important because many schools use the results to determine how well prepared their students are for engineering careers.
A professor’s perspective
Nasab has served on the MTSU faculty since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree from California State University Northridge near Los Angeles and both his master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s top engineering schools.
With research interests in robots and automation, Nasab was a natural fit to take the lead role with the program.
“Our program is different from a traditional mechatronics program,” he said. “It is going to have a systems approach. We are going to start with a system, then break it down into subsystems, learn the subsystems, then break it down into components and in the process, learn all the engineering related to the entire system. So our graduates will be able to design products with a system in mind, not just one component.”
In July, after the TBR approved the program but before THEC OK’d it, Nasab attended a Siemens Level 1-A certification workshop in Pennsylvania. He traveled to Berlin, Germany, in August for a Level 1-B certification workshop and to conduct talks on devel0ping the Level 3 certification.
“We had a very productive week at Siemens Technical Academy (in Germany),” Nasab said. “Besides the training workshop, we held daily talks on streamlining the Siemens objectives with our new mechatronics engineering program.”
Nasab said MTSU and Siemens will collaborate closely on development of the new Level 3 certification, which requires a bachelor’s degree.
“Once the model and the requirements are developed, the resulting methods and literature will be distributed worldwide for others to consider Level 3 certification,” he said.
Nasab said he will be in charge of establishing new courses for the program, recruiting new students, cooperating with local high schools and community colleges and seeking external funding for mechatronics equipment.
In addition to the traditional benefits of an engineering degree, the MTSU mechatronics engineering degree offers:
- a systems approach to problem-solving techniques;
- team interaction and dynamics;
- understanding of the system integration of mechanical/electrical/control components;
- professional communication and documentation skills; and
- business, operation and safety aspects of engineering.
For more information about the program, email Nasab at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-898-2052.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)