Well, 2021 has been a lot of firsts for everything – many of them not so great – but it was an exciting first year for the GEARS (Generalist Electromechanics for Applied Researchers) Workshop! This workshop has been a long time in the making, and we plan to make it an annual event to help train scientists, engineers, and educators how to implement and use technology for their work. The workshop was a week-long ambitious program to take students from zero to sixty in five short days. We also had a great time with activities around the area in the evenings as well.

Often we think of scientists and researchers as being all knowing technical wizards – and that they get that way through their formal training and education. In reality, going through a PhD program trains you deeply in a specific scientific discipline, but the programs have always relied on a certain amount of mechanical, electrical, computer programming, or other skills that are not really part of the curriculum. In past decades these skills were often acquired while growing up in primary education shop classes, at home, or by training from a departmental technician who was the student’s technical mentor during their work. Sadly, shop classes are long gone due to changes in the educational system, fewer people are exposed to hands on skills, and technicians are often being phased out by universities as unnecessary expenses. For a time, institutional knowledge and the equipment at-hand will suffice, but as that equipment ages, breaks, needs improved or otherwise altered we’re seeing that the labs are unable to support themselves. While we’re certainly not advocating that each student become an engineer designing new pressure vessels, we also don’t want to see a lab down, requiring a service call to a contractor to perform a simple fix that requires 10 minutes. There needs to be a program to fill the gap between primary/undergraduate education and the research world of graduate school and academic employment – a program that equips scientists to tackle basic problems in the labs, know what can be built, know how to save money where they can and when to call in an expert. That is the goal of the GEARS program.

For the first workshop, we were pleased to welcome over 20 participants to northwest Arkansas from academic programs all around the country. Four Leeman Geophysical staff members, along with technicians, professors, and other friends of the program helped make this workshop a great success. We were able to utilize the local VFW post, next door to our workshop, to host the lecture portions of the course, with hands on work taking place in our workshop.

Day 1 – Safety and Electronics

The first day started off as any good lab course does – with a thorough safety briefing on all of the hazards students may encounter during the workshop. We were planning to work with electricity, welders, torches, milling machines, and more so there was plenty to go over. It paid off too, as nobody received any injuries for the entire week. We also had Capt. Jeff Grass and his crew from Siloam Springs Fire Department over to talk about how to put out a small fire with a fire extinguisher and how to decide when it was time to quit and simply evacuate. We really love our workshop and we wanted to make sure it was still here at the end of the week! These skills also apply to students at home, in their labs, and in the office. Each student got to put out a live fire with a real fire extinguisher. Thanks to Siloam Fire for making this happen.


Student putting out a live fire

After everyone was thoroughly briefed on how to be safe for the week we started talking about electronics. Students learned the basic components and their functions, how they are depicted on schematics, and more. We also started discussing one of the more tricky parts of electronics, the operational amplifier. Op-Amps make up a lot of the signal processing that goes on in the analog electronics world and they are often very misunderstood. After a pizza lunch from the famous local Jim’s Razorback Pizza, we broke up into groups and worked through four lab activities that included soldering through-hole and surface mount components, using Op-Amps in a few configurations, using instrumentation amplifiers to buffer and amplify transducers, and how to use a logic analyzer to look at digital signals. Quite a first day of work! At the end everyone was tired, but had their very own blinky kit completed, understood more about electronics, and had put out a real fire. Overall the day was a great success. Everyone loaded up and went downtown Siloam to our local brewery, The Ivory Bill, and enjoyed a pint or a cream soda brewed just a few blocks from the shop by Casey and Dorothy.

Troubleshooting & soldering are things I’ll immediately use on my instruments. Understanding schematics & op-amps really helped me.

Day 2 – Electronics and Fluid Power

The second day focused on finishing up the basics of electronics by focusing on how we actually take a mechanical parameter, like displacement or speed, and turn it into something electronic, like a volt. Then once we have that analog voltage, how can we turn that into something digital that we can record, analyze, and work with in a computer? We also explored how signals from transducers can be put into a feedback loop that is used to control a machine. For example, using a displacement transducer to control the position of a hydraulic ram in a PID (proportional, integral, differential) control system. These kinds of transducer interfacing and control problems are some of the most common scientists and engineers are faced with early in a project and can be some of the most confusing topics.

Students explore fluid power

Speaking of control, it is very common to use “fluid power” (i.e. air or hydraulics) in the lab and in factories to move things, press things, and more. Students were able to use our fluid power test board during the afternoon lab activities to get experience wiring up solenoid valves, using double acting cylinders, safety valves, pressure regulators, and limit switches. These kinds of activities may not have made anyone a fluid power expert, but they were certainly able to look at a system in their lab, understand how it works, and maybe even do some troubleshooting and re-plumbing if needed. While activities like this may happen in some engineering programs, you certainly don’t see them in the classroom for most science programs. Other afternoon activities 

included tuning PID controllers to balance a ping pong ball with fans, using analog to digital converters, and conducting a calibration of transducers using our thermal chamber, displacement calibrator, and load cell amplifier.

I will at least be less scared of trying new things/electronics because I’m more familiar with the basics.

As a special treat – Tuesday evening the students had the opportunity to fly over northwest Arkansas around sunset in small aircraft. Thanks to Ross Executive Aviation Inc. and Short Final Aviation LLC for donating fuel and time to share the beauty of this area and the joy of flight!


Day 3 – Design and Arduino

After two days of some pretty intense electronics, we started to transition more into the mechanical world. The day started out with a tutorial on how to use free 3D CAD software to draw parts and make a drawing that a machinist can actually use. We even included tips on how to make your machinist (which is often one of us) love you by dimensioning things in logical ways, adding tolerances, and other best practices. The 3D design section concluded with a chat about 3D printing: when it’s good, when it’s bad, and when it’s not even possible. With more and more universities having 3D printer labs, knowing these skills can save everyone a lot of time and money when prototyping!

We then talked about how parts are actually made – someone has to start with a chunk of material and work it to become that thing you drew. It is easy to draw parts that can’t be made! Students learned how to design their parts to be less expensive and how to harden them for use in the field. While thinking about the field, we had a good discussion on enclosures for instruments, batteries, and other things needed for any successful instrument deployment in the real world. Thanks to the diverse background of people in attendance, we got to talk about field work from Antarctica to Houston to New Zealand. Students then went to Nance Machine, a local machine shop we often work with, to see how big machines make big parts! They even got to waterjet an Arkansas Razorback into a sheet of aluminum.

Students at Nance Machine

Not only my research will be benefitted from the workshop, but my personal life in general. The workshop gave me background knowledge and confidence to troubleshoot problems and guidance to develop and design new things

After a Mexican food buffet, we all settled in to play with Arduino, the simple programmable microcontroller platform that has become incredibly popular in the last decade. Students received a kit with an Arduino, sensors, wires, lights, motors, and more electronics goodies. We covered the basics of programming the microcontrollers in C++, then turned students loose to work on their own projects. Students were able to program keypads, buttons, lights, motors, and screens to perform a variety of tasks. They also read data from temperature and humidity sensors that could be logged in the lab.

In addition, Steve Swavely, the lab technician at Penn State, shared with students tips and tricks he’s discovered while building piezoelectric sensor assemblies. These sensors are becoming increasingly important in the world of rock deformation research as they allow scientists to “listen” to rock failure and understand more about the mechanics of fracturing and faulting that they are working on. Working with these sensors is a delicate process and everyone learned a lot from Steve’s years of experience.

Day 4 – Hands-on in the Shop and LabView Programming

After learning and practicing lots of skills in the classroom, it was time to take it to the shop for a morning of hands-on learning. The day started with a safety brief and then a quick talk from engineer Cody Ulaga of Alternative Design Manufacturing and Supply Inc. Cody talked about how students can design inexpensive parts out of sheet metal to make brackets and enclosures with basic tools. Then everyone headed to the shop. Groups spent time at the mill and lathe cutting metal with Chris and Heath from Nance Machine, worked with different fasteners and power tools, and welded up their own carbon steel pencil cups. They even used the cutting torch to slice through thick steel and a propane torch to learn how to sweat pipe, both handy skills in the lab and even as a homeowner.

I feel more confident with how to design parts in the future… I think that hands-on skills are always super valuable, often in more ways than you realize.

After a good lunch of a Chinese buffet with local industrial electricians Amoth Electric, we all opened up our laptops and fired up LabView. This is a programming language developed by National Instruments and commonly found in academic labs doing data collection, analysis, and instrument control. Having a foundation in LabView helps students make modifications to software in their labs and troubleshoot problems. We have LabView Certified Developers on staff, so students learned best practices and learned from over a decade of experience.

With a quick break to go freshen up at the hotel, everyone converged on the Leeman house for a BBQ, yard games, and home brew. Local Arvest Bank representatives, chamber members, contractors, and more joined for lots of shop talk and some very intense games of corn hole. Burgers, hot dogs, and s’mores were enjoyed until late into the evening!

Day 5 – Applications

The last day of the workshop was all about applying everything we’d learned all week to real world problems. We started off with a lecture on how to troubleshoot something when you had no idea where to start or what the problem could be. After a quick coffee break, we had a series of presentations (both in-person and virtual) from scientists on how they were using the skills we’ve talked about in their research. Dr. Eric Bruning showed us how he’s making storm-ready quick deploy stations for lightning physics and meteorology. Dr. Shannon Dulin related her story of inheriting an aging and ailing instrument and overcoming her fears of it to just dig in and try to fix it. Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan Zoomed in to discuss the challenges he faces deploying instruments in polar environments. After that we heard from Dr. Scott DeWolff on advances in using fiber optics to sense movements of the Earth. Dr. Alison Nugent showed students her Sea-Salt air sampler she built using 3D printing and Arduino. Finally, Dr. Kiya Riverman showed us more polar instruments and offered advice for planning large-scale field projects.

After a fried chicken lunch we filled out exit surveys and hacked on projects that students brought with them. As people headed off to the airport, one-by-one, we all said goodbye and were hacking until the end of the day.

Wrapping it Up

After a very fun, but very exhausting week, the team packed up the workshop materials and took a break… for a couple of days. Our summer intern, Josh, spent his last week recording workshop survey responses, inventorying leftover materials, and scanning the giant stack of expenses resulting from the previous week. Looking back on the week, we certainly learned some lessons and things to change for future workshops, but the team was certainly glad to learn that everyone had enjoyed the workshop and found it applicable to their research immediately!

I would send every second or rising second year student here before working on instruments. It’s invaluable as a knowledge base before working in the field.

Looking forward, we want to continue to develop this workshop, ideally procuring funding to help pay for student registrations, more classroom materials, and travel grants. We want to thank all of the local businesses, friends, and family that worked so hard to make this workshop a success. We’ll see you next year – keep an eye out for announcements!

This workshop should be required in every graduate program that does field work.

John Leeman
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