Blown up to nearly the size of a kiddie pool, a brawny coffee cup lid fills the projector screen in a Science Center classroom at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), where engineering students, scribbling notes, are listening to a development team from Hydro Flask share their product’s life story.
With its smooth design and flip-down grab handle, the techy-looking mug cover also has a lot going on under the hood. “What if you wanted to bond that silicone to the plastic so you don’t have to take it out to clean it?” asked David Cipoletti, Ph.D., referring to how the maker of insulated wares perfected the lid’s seal.
Nylon is a material that fits the bill, explained the former automotive engineer, before turning the talk toward curing temperatures and the chemical process. “Sealing is hard,” he added, reflecting on the multi-year project. “And we picked a hard path.”
For aspiring engineers, learning about a product’s boiled-down timeline – from the prototype phase through quality assurance – is engaging stuff. So, too, is hearing about the diverse resumes of four different engineers.
With backgrounds that have included positions at Burton Snowboards and Rubbermaid, from working in the automotive field to helping engineer parts for F-15 fighter jets, the visiting team gave the students plenty to ponder. “That was more information than I was expecting,” a student said to a classmate as the talk wrapped up.
Kevin Grove is striving for that impact. The associate professor of physics and engineering and chair of the science department at COCC uses the “Engineering Orientation” course to expose students to principles of engineering while also introducing real world texture through speakers and field trips.
“Engineering is so broad and there are so many different things that engineers can do,” said Grove, whose own education combines degrees in civil and chemical engineering, along with extensive studies in avalanche science. “In a nutshell, they solve problems. And we’re training students to be critical thinkers, to approach a problem in a certain structured way, from the starting line to the finish line.”
Getting to that finish line demands core skills and comprehension – fundamentals that COCC specializes in. “We do a lot of hands-on team projects where they’re solving problems in teams,” said Grove. “As we build throughout the program, we get more into the math, science, physics and engineering behind all of those things. The other thing we’re training is communication skills,” he added. “It’s essential in their job to be able to write and speak well and explain their ideas and work. It might be a customer, an architect or maybe, say, a wind farm plant manager.”
In addition to offering an associate of science degree with an engineering emphasis, COCC has an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree with a focus on physics. “Certain fields can get 100% of their first two years at COCC, and then transfer for two additional years,” Grove continued. “For other types of engineers – if you’re an electrical engineer or a chemical engineer – there are some courses that we don’t offer, but you can get 80 to 90 percent of your first two years here.”
Schools like the Oregon Institute of Technology and Oregon State University are popular places for grads to continue their training. And about half of COCC’s engineering students are going into OSU-Cascades’ Energy Systems Engineering bachelor’s degree program in Bend: The dynamic degree combines mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, electrical engineering and business, all with a focus on energy.
Alex Pelayo took that track, recently completing his bachelor’s degree and now starting a position with the city of Bend as an engineering tech. As he starts a career focused on public infrastructure projects, he looks back on the strength of his team-centered education at COCC. “What I enjoyed the most from my COCC engineering courses were definitely the small projects we did in class and working with other people to solve problems,” he said. “The classes were well taught.”
Engineering is a second start for recent COCC graduate Melissa McAlexander, now attending OSU in Corvallis. After an allergy thwarted her baking career, she took her math- and creative-based skills in a new direction and pursued engineering. “I’m currently filling out applications for OSU’s master’s program,” she said. “COCC had a very supportive environment. It felt like the instructors really cared about my success.”
For budding engineers, an exam called the Fundamentals of Engineering bridges their education to the working world, a requirement to becoming a licensed professional engineer. And COCC’s training is ensuring that the bridge is durable. “Ninety-four percent of our students have passed that, and the national average is in the 70s,” said Grove. “We’re getting a really good success rate.”
Back in the Science Center, a “Statics” class is underway where 20 students are clustered around shared worktables covered with notebooks, rulers and graphing calculators. Professor Bruce Emerson is handing out a pickle of a problem: The visual on the page is of a doglegged pipe extruding from a concrete wall, with a cable tension applied, and the class needs to solve for the reactions created.
Student Erik Kersenbrock seems to quickly grasp the task. He later admits to being a lifelong tinkerer. “I was taking things apart as soon as I could,” he said with a smile. Now his ambitions – with the support of a strong academic foundation – are elevating his tinkering to a new level. He’s contemplating a future in nuclear engineering.
For more details, visit the engineering program at Central Oregon Community College or call 541-383-7700.