Some mechanical engineering students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this spring got a taste of how good things can, and do, fall apart.
About 18 UTC students, mainly seniors who were on track to graduate this month, were abruptly sidetracked from design projects that had been months, and even years, in the making.
Instead, when the campus closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, they immediately pivoted to COVID-19 projects, such as designing simple ventilators and respirator masks using off-the-shelf materials and 3-D printers.
"Jumping from one project to another is absolutely something that happens in the real world," said Kile Clark, 22, of Cleveland, Tenn.
"We took it as a challenge," added Matt Walton, a 22-year-old senior from Columbia, Tenn. "It's actually a good learning experience."
Even though the semester has ended, some of the students continue to work on their virus-related projects in hopes that UTC faculty members can transform their designs into prototypes this summer.
The course, Interdisciplinary Design Project II, is made up of small project teams applying engineering principles to real-life projects.
Before the shutdown, one UTC team was working on an off-road vehicle, another was designing rockets, and yet another was redesigning valves for industrial applications.
When the campus shut down, class instructor Trevor Elliott, who holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering, tried to scramble to preserve all of the projects. But working around a closed campus and social distancing rules proved to be impossible.
"At one point, I realized the handwriting was on the wall," Elliott said. "There was no way we could do [all of] the projects."
Several of the students had been working on the off-road vehicle to enter into a national design competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). UTC has often placed among the top schools in the nation in this challenge.
"We were relatively close to putting it on the ground and driving it," said Clark, who was the project manager. Now, the project will be shelved until other students can finish it next semester, he said.
Clark joined a team trying to design a low-cost ventilator, the kind used to treat patients with serious COVID-19 complications. They came up with a design with a footprint that would fit in a 24-inch cube.
"We were looking for something simple, that still works and can be manufactured quickly," Clark said. "Everything [in the design] can be 3D printed or bought from a parts warehouse."
Walton, meanwhile, was on a team tasked with designing a respirator mask that could be produced on a 3D printer and would have the same filtering power as an N95 mask.
He said his group designed a mask made of hard-shell plastic with replaceable filters that would be suitable for health-care workers.
Walton said changing projects in mid-semester was good practice for the students, who need to learn how to turn on a dime in real-world engineering work.
"You just have to take the ball and run," he said.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.