Professor gets grant to study energy

Portland State mechanical engineering associate professor Gerald Recktenwald received a $150,000 grant on April 1 from the National Science Foundation for the development of a new PSU thermal and liquid energy program.

Portland State mechanical engineering associate professor Gerald Recktenwald received a $150,000 grant on April 1 from the National Science Foundation for the development of a new PSU thermal and liquid energy program.

The Engineering of Everyday Things grant will fund a program that allows students to study the use of thermal and liquid energy in ordinary household items, such as toasters and hair dryers, to explore core engineering concepts, Recktenwald said. Thermal and liquid energy come from transferring energy from one source to the next–such as turning on a hair dryer or water that is pumped through pipes.

The grant will fund a series of classes over the next two years that study the use of energy in these objects. The main goal of the grant is for engineering students to recognize the thermal and fluid sciences in the everyday objects they study, said Recktenwald.

Recktenwald said that the courses in the program are a blend of group lectures and independent laboratory exercises done by mechanical engineering students.

The program is currently open only to engineering students. Around 30 students are enrolled in the program, which began this spring.

“The focus of this grant is to investigate new ways to teach engineering to students, so the initial crowd needs to be very focused,” Recktenwald said.

The program stemmed from a department-wide interest to expand heat transfer courses, such as the thermal and liquid energy courses, in Portland State’s engineering program, Recktenwald said.

The idea to study technology like household items came from observing how children learn in the Helen Gordon daycare on campus, where his son is enrolled, he said. Recktenwald said he is optimistic about expanding the course during the grant period and that it may become available for open enrollment in the future.

Although the focus of the grant is on undergraduate engineering students, Recktenwald said that he feels the new program isn’t going to be exclusionary.

“This grant has a mass appeal,” Recktenwald said. “It will support student interest and help investigate new methods of teaching engineering to anyone interested.”

The undergraduate engineering curriculum has several key focuses, according to Recktenwald, among them thermal and fluid sciences.

The courses in the Everyday Things grant are meant to offer classes similar to freshman and sophomore inquiries for students interested in thermal and fluid sciences, Recktenwald said.

“Many of our courses that focus on heat transfer are theoretical in nature,” Recktenwald said. “I’m focusing more on applied learning in the lab by working with typical objects that students encounter several times a day without even realizing it.”

Recktenwald said that he will develop the course outline with the students enrolled for this term and apply it to courses held over the next two years of the grant.

Recktenwald’s students say that they are also excited about the program, and that they appreciate working closely with him on the project.

PSU mechanical engineering majors Ben Ohmert and Ryan Bailey said that they have taken several courses with Recktenwald before and are excited to learn more about heat transfer.

“When I heard about the grant, I was really excited to sign up and work with Professor Recktenwald,” Ohmert said. “I like learning about this stuff beyond just the regular classes.”

“He’s great about working with his students in the department, both during class and outside of it,” Bailey said. “Working with him has really helped me to comprehend engineering.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a federal agency that funds hundreds of grants and research programs using federal dollars. Recktenwald said that there are currently dozens of NSF grants active at PSU and that his fellow engineering professor, Mark Weislogel, is currently researching flow patterns over complex surfaces under a similar grant.

“The NSF is like a big investment agency and they have a mission to promote the discovery of knowledge in every field they can,” Recktenwald said. “This year they selected my proposal out of a field of about 900, so I intend to use their funding to the fullest and benefit engineering education as best I can.”

Recktenwald said he is optimistic about PSU receiving future grants to further science education. PSU increased expenditures for overall research and grant programs to over $40 million during the 2005-06 school year, approximately $3 million more than the previous year.

The Everyday Things course research and data will be posted online with regular updates, Recktenwald said. Although the site is in its early stages, a more complete version should be online before the fall 2007 term, he said.

The program’s website can be found at