2022 GEARS workshop group photo

Summer is quickly becoming our favorite season here at the shop. Why? Because we get to welcome a new crew of students in for our summer workshop class! 2022 was the second year of our GEARS (Generalist Electromechanics for Applied Researchers) Workshop. Just like I did in the post about last year’s workshop, I want to give you a feel for what the students experienced, but even more so what we changed based on the 2021 workshop and future plans to make more of these workshops happen and make them more accessible.

The 2021 workshop was a completely new thing for us; in fact, for everyone. Nobody had really run such a hands-on and technical workshop targeted at graduate level students in non-engineering fields. There are plenty of summer camp type events for engineers to hone their technical chops, but the ways for scientists to level up their technical skills were much more limited. Having lots of great experimental scientists with reduced technical capabilities (compared to students in similar positions a decade or three ago) is starting to rear its head as a problem. So much of today’s experimental and field science is conducted using dated equipment and supported by decades of knowledge accumulated by long-term staff such as laboratory technicians, staff scientists, etc. As students come into a research group they are given this knowledge, or sometimes even have the technical tasks performed for them in the background. The latter, while accomplishing the goal of giving the students more time to work on the science questions (why they are there after all) is the most dangerous. Not only do the students not have the skills to work on, repair, and modify the equipment responsible for collecting the data they need, they may not even know these technical tasks are necessary or that they were ever performed. This can lead to a whole other set of issues such as interpreting data that has filters applied to it that the student knows nothing about, not understanding the strengths and limitations of the data collected, or simply not appreciating how precious each data point is based on the massive amounts of effort and skill that went into collecting it.

Unfortunately, the support for technical staff, the generally unsung heroes of most lab and field operations, is dwindling as universities close down machine shops, don’t replace lab technicians, and outsource more of their jobs in an effort to maximize profits and research outputs. As these staff are reduced, the productivity of many labs suffer. The classic example we give is an instance where we flew across the country to pretty much reattach a ground wire that had fallen off and flew back. A very simple problem that nobody in the lab group knew to look for – one that ended up costing a decent amount to fix given our travel costs.

This is exactly the problem the GEARS workshops are designed to fix. We can’t make students expert machinists, welders, electrical engineers, and technicians in only a week. What we can do is make them aware of the existence of many tools, common issues, and skills they can acquire if they so choose. Though the days of the in-house lab technician may be numbered unless something changes, there is no reason for scientists not to get back to having these basic skills themselves. Even the ability to drill and tap threads into a hole can save a couple of weeks and hundreds of dollars compared to sending such a simple job out to a university shop. (This exact scenario had happened just before the workshop in the lab of one of our attendees.)

Student hooking up electronic circuit.
Student running a milling machine.

What We Changed

Running the workshop for the first time last year, we had some ideas of how things should work, but knew that it wasn’t going to be perfect. We know that many good plans don’t survive their first contact with reality. While the 2021 workshop was still a resounding success and had many positive comments, reviews, and feedback, we did see areas for improvement as well. Upon reading the surveys we saw the typical Bell curve spread about workshop speed and difficulty (telling us we were about right!), but we also saw some very universal signals.

The largest signal was that the structure of the workshop needed some tweaking. In 2021 we had lectures all morning and lab activities all afternoon. There were 4 lab stations that students rotated through in 1 hour blocks. Though there were breaks throughout the day, students found the block of lecture too long. By the time they got to the relevant lab exercise in the afternoon more than 4 hours could have passed and the connections that should have been made just didn’t happen as reliably as we would want.

Another universal signal was that labs, while instructive, weren’t inspiring. Instead of four independent lab activities each day, students requested a project as a common thread that ran throughout the workshop. We had considered this idea during planning, but ruled it out as we were afraid if any student got behind on say day 2, then they would be lost and become disengaged for the rest of the week. We also knew that the cost of so many sets of equipment was prohibitive, especially given that year one was an experiment that may or may not be repeated. While we weren’t sure what to make of the comments, they were there and there in unison.

In January of 2022 we started planning for the workshop. There were many uncertainties that we’ll talk about later, but we knew August would be here before we knew it. We knew that we needed to mix lecture and labs much more deeply and that the lab activities needed to be presented in a different way less like an undergraduate lab with a worksheet. Bonus points if we could connect the labs with a common project thread.

Our plan initially was to offer students a choice of three different projects that all had the same core concepts of things like signal conditioning, data acquisition, mechanical fabrication, etc. Each student would complete their own project in many small 30-60 minute stages associated with lecture topics. For example, we talk about the concept of instrumentation amplifiers before students use an instrumentation amplifier to boost a signal on their project. This was a good concept, but did not address what to do if a student gets behind and was going to add significantly onto the cost of the workshop. It did have the advantage of addressing both universal concerns though and gave students something to take home with them at the end. (In 2021 many students commented how they really like the build a blinky activity because it was a well defined task with a clear success result that they were able to take with them.)

What ended up happening was keeping the three project idea, but instead grouping students into small groups of 3-4 learners that worked together to accomplish the task. This allowed us to tackle more complex projects as there were more person-hours available for the work to be accomplished. It also eliminated the problem of students getting left behind as it produced a group environment allowing students to help each other through a problem. Groups also have the advantage of developing the soft skills required to work together with other scientists in a potentially high-pressure, less than familiar environment, as is often encountered in the field.

We also massively restructured the schedule to have more of the lecture topics built into the time students were building their projects. In addition, we added some shop tours to the schedule as one participant last year pointed out that seeing how to even setup and organize a workspace was one of the most valuable things they gained. We can say first hand that every time we walk into someone’s shop we see a cool idea or two that we incorporate back into our setup. (But that’s back to the idea of experience and institutional knowledge that we’ve already belabored.)

 

Students troubleshooting a device with a computer

Increasing Accessibility

The goal of the workshop is to increase assess to technological knowledge, and also support the human and social accessibility of the workshop itself. We have already mentioned our aim to increase the accessibility of design, building, and technological tools to our learners. By moving the workshop out of a university setting, students encounter the pace and tenor of busy commercial manufacturing environments – actual conditions with which they will interact throughout their careers. Students also have an opportunity, much like at a conference, to meet peers from other universities and disciplines, and without privileging the attendance by students of (and the perspective of) any given academic institution.

While increasing accessibility has some to do with having equipment to learn on (we bought multimeters and oscilloscopes for each pair of students to use to increase their hands on time), it more so has to do with the ability to attend. The simple cost of attendance and travel itself limits participation to only those students already working with relatively richly supported faculty.

To address this shortcoming we submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) via Texas Tech University (TTU). NSF does not provide grants to for-profit organizations, so we were able to work on the proposal with a supportive alumnus of the program at TTU. The university would take a chunk of money from the grant to cover their costs of administering the funds and would arrange for fully-supported student travel. In return, we would receive logistical support for identifying and enrolling participants beyond our immediate network – a win-win to broaden participation and financial accessibility. If that funding model worked, we could have then moved to set up a non-profit here in Arkansas that could receive the funding directly in the future.

So what did we ask for? We were seeking funding to buy more equipment for students to use, but the vast majority of the funding was to cover student travel, lodging, meal, and registration costs. This kind of funding would make it possible for students from any university and any financial position to apply to come to the workshop. It would also let our team spend more time preparing workshop activities and working with education professionals to ensure maximum impact and retention of the material.

Unfortunately, NSF did not really feel comfortable with a non-university privately owned company doing this type of workshop, and suggested that a university host it instead. As we already stated, we think such a workshop would bump up against the de facto disinterest in sustaining in-house, domain-specific, design and manufacturing within departments at most universities. They also didn’t seem to see the unique opportunity to utilize a shop facility with many many hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment which was already provided by the company. Certainly a revised proposal can make these points more clear, but another model may work as well.

An alternative model which we are currently considering is to just continue to run the workshop as an event put on by a for-profit company. We charge a registration fee and universities/NSF awardees at those universities use their funds to pay their way here. That is what has already happened the last two years. If that model is continued investigators simply need to write in their budgets funds to send students. We certainly can’t grow the equipment and resource pool as quickly on our own, but over several years a decent set of teaching equipment would be acquired to complement our commercial workshop. Our goal with these workshops is not to make tons of cash and retire, but simply to help create better scientists that can better utilize funds awarded to them by organizations like NSF. That utilization includes being able to fix some of their own problems as well as knowing how to talk to and work with contractors such as ourselves for projects out of the scope of their abilities.

 

Students soldering at a work table

Day 1

Similar to last year, day 1 started with introductions and a firm lesson on safety and what the personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements were during the workshop. After we ensured everyone had the proper PPE, we walked across the way to the shop building and did a tour through the facility to familiarize students with the equipment available and locations of resources they would be using during the week. We then went back into the classroom and started an interactive lesson on basic electronics theory, such as Ohm’s law, and what electronics components were often used in scientific apparatus. The main thing we added here was an interactive session on how to use a multimeter and oscilloscope to do basic troubleshooting tasks. For example, how do you measure how much current a device is drawing? How do you check a power rail for voltage drop? How do you track down noise on a signal? These skills are guaranteed to be utilized by each student almost immediately upon their return to the lab. We purchased some scope/meter/function generator combo units from Hantek that fit the bill perfectly for this training. While they aren’t high end industrial test gear like we use in the shop everyday, they are really very good for the price point and if they are damaged as a student learns to use them they can be replaced economically.

Presentation kicking off GEARS 2022

We then worked on learning how to solder both surface mount and through hole components. This is great for building simple circuits or quickly repairing equipment with known bad parts. To learn basic soldering skills, each student built a “blinky” kit and had it working before lunch time! This was a favorite activity from 2021 and was a hit again in 2022. After lunch, we followed it up with building load cells (devices to measure force) from scratch. Students learned about strain gauges and how to apply them to a metal cylinder to make a load cell. The morning’s soldering practice came in handy as strain gauges can be pretty tricky to solder.

After a long day of learning, mostly with great success, we tried a twist on last year’s mixer. In 2021 students met at a local watering hole, Ivory Bill Brewing, to get to know each other and relax after the first day of intense learning. This year we took that time to turn the event into a public outreach opportunity. We asked students to bring their last conference poster on what they were doing for their research and present it, like in a scientific poster session, but to a non-scientist audience. We were nervous about interest/attendance, but it turns out that was an unnecessary worry!

As soon as we wrapped up class, we drove the truck with our home-made poster stands (those things are expensive if you buy them!) down to the brewery and a few early arrival students helped us set them up in the patio and brewing room area. Casey and Dorothy, owners of the brewery, were enthusiastic to help us setup, let us use the space, and help us advertise the event. The community showed up in a big way, asking students lots of questions and learning why we need geoscience research initiatives. They saw everything from glacier retreat to archeological surveys to instruments deployed in and around thunderstorms. The volume of children was astounding and some of the most poignant questions came from our smallest guests. Many stayed after the two hour poster session for drinks, comradery, and food from around town. This event was a huge outreach opportunity to help young scientists learn how to communicate and help the public see all of the amazing work done around the country and around the world.

 

It was a good balance of hands-on experience and theory/backround. I felt very comfortable asking ‘dumb’ questions which is very appreciated.

Day 2

The second day was largely a day for students to work on their projects, which we have not really touched on much yet. Students were teamed up into three groups working on three problems: atmospheric pressure measurement, magnetic surveying, and stream level measurement. We’ll talk about each of those projects in linked blog posts in more detail because they were fascinating. For now the most important thing is that each group had three stations to work through. In one station John B. and Eric helped them fabricate the mechanical components of their systems. This often involved welding, grinding, cutting, gluing, lasering, milling, and more. At another station Jonah B. taught them about how sensors communicate with controllers and each other before they drew up and wired their sensors for their projects. At the last station, John L. worked with each group to create a data logging program to run on a microcontroller and collect/store their measurements. Each station was just less than a half day and day 2 each group visited 2 stations.

In the morning of day 2 the Siloam Springs Fire Department came by, led by Capt. Jeff Grass, and held a live fire exercise for each student to put out a real fire using a real fire extinguisher. This is an intimidating task for many who have never fought a fire, but once learned, can save their life and property at work or at home. We can’t thank the fire department enough for doing this as a community outreach activity.

 

Captain Jeff Grass explaining a fire extinguisher
Student putting out a fire

Before the afternoon instrument work session, students went to Alternative Design Manufacturing and Supply Co. here in Siloam Springs to learn about how sheet metal can be used in their instruments from engineering manager Cody Ulaga. After a presentation on ways to design parts that were functional, possible to make, and as versatile as possible, Cody took the group on a tour of the impressive manufacturing floor at the plant so students could see that drawings on screens were really made by real people into real parts on real machines. Just seeing how much effort goes into making something makes you a much better and more careful desginer of components and equipment!

Students touring the Alternative Design facility

I enjoyed learning about the topics and liked applying them in the shop and I know I will use these skills in the future.

Day 3

The goal of day 3 was to finish projects and go get some data! Students visited their final station in the morning with many insisting on working over lunch to put finishing touches on their projects or even add features we didn’t specify! By about 2 PM everyone was ready to go collect data. Teams dispatched to the field with the mission of not coming back until data were in hand.

The magnetometer team took their home-made non-magnetic survey cart with several inexpensive sensors and a very expensive commercial magnetometer to the field in front of the Alternative Design manufacturing plant. Their goal was to survey over known targets with inexpensive and expensive instruments and compare them as well as evaluate the thermal sensitivities of the inexpensive instruments.

 

Magnetometer electronics
Building the magnetometer cart
Group surveying over culverts

Another team took several relatively inexpensive pressure sensors as well as commercial and home-made pressure ports into the field to measure atmospheric pressure. For reference they deployed at the local airport so there was an expensive and calibrated instrument to compare to (the ASOS station). This team also brought a StickNet instrument that they deploy in severe storm and hurricane scenarios to test and compare its sensitivities to things like wind to the other sensors.

Pressure group building instruments
Deploying the pressure instruments at KSLG
Using a leafblower to look for wind speed sensitivity

A third team took their stream measurement equipment to the Siloam Springs Fire Department Training Facility to test how well different kinds of sensors worked for water level measurement. The original plan was to deploy in a local stream, but a very hot and dry summer made local streams of safe and managable sizes difficult to find and we all worried about the lack of level change in the short period the sensors would be deployed. Therefore, we made the decision to test in a small above ground pool that the team setup and filled/drained to different levels using the fire hydrant connection.

Stream gauge electronics enclosure
Stream tank filling
Stream team taking measurements

The amount of material and hands-on work I got to learn and do was awesome.

The evenings of Tuesday and Wednesday were a special treat as plane rides were offered so students could see the beauty of our region from the air. Everyone had a blast and it was many student’s first time to ride in a small aircraft.

Student waving from airplane
View of sunset over Siloam Springs from the air

Day 4

Many of the groups were able to leave their instruments deployed after collecting their initial data on day 3. Overnight a line of storms rolled through that continued into the morning, creating a great opportunity to see changes in many of the variables they were measuring as well as test how weather proof their setups really were. While the instruments were out being exposed to the elements, we settled down into the classroom and worked through some lectures and activities on how to condition and digitize signals, troubleshoot systems, control actuators and more! After lunch we all went to another local shop, Nance Machine, where Heath and Jim Nance showed students what machining big parts for big projects looks like. Students saw waterjets, CNC machines, heat treatment, and more in action at a very busy and bustling shop.

Students touring Nance Machine
Heat treat ovens at Nance Machine

The afternoon consisted of finishing up a few more lectures on topics the students picked from the available topics we had not yet discussed (we have enough material for several weeks of workshops). Then Dr. Eric Bruning showed students how his team at TTU uses all of the concepts they have learned this week to measure the physics of lightning with instruments that can be built relatively simply with the knowledge presented this week.

I feel like I learned a lot! It was fun and beneficial and I really enjoyed working on a big project.

Thursday evening the students went back to the hotel to drop off their bags, then everyone came over to the Leeman house for a celebratory BBQ. Other local business owners, community members, and good friends and neighbors dropped in as well to chat with students and get a generous helping of hotdogs, hamburgers, slow smoked pork (thanks to Rick for doing an outstanding job here), and home made ice cream (thanks to Russ and Dianne for making this special treat)! After the long week of hard work, everyone enjoyed the time to unwind and relax before their hectic last day in Arkansas.

Students eating at the BBQ
Students playing Jenga at the BBQ
Students playing yard games at the BBQ

Day 5

The last day of the workshop was significantly different than in 2021. Last year we had researchers from all around the globe give short presentations on how they used skills just like those students had learned at the workshop to create instruments and empower their own research. While we thought this was a great idea, the student response was mixed as they were not wanting to see more Zoom presentations after semesters of COVID lockdown. This year, we turned the tables. Students had about 3 hours to analyze their data from their experiments and prepare presentations on it to show not only to each other, but to members of local businesses (many of which we had visited during the week). This meant not only showing graphs and charts, but again communicating what they did to non-specialists and showing why it was important.

Groups were furiously working on their slides up until they walked to the front of the room to speak. Each presentation impressed everyone with the amount of work that had been done in such a short time and with the execution of the experiments in a scientific way.

 

The projects were a fantastic way to keep us focused and experimental and to help people become more comfortable.

Stream team presenting their results
Magnetometer group surveying a field
Pressure group presenting results

Dr. Shannon Dulin from University of Oklahoma, who had driven over for the presentations, rounded out the scheduled program by presenting on how she was handed a lab with broken equipment and had to sink or swim learning how to troubleshoot and repair equipment. It was a scary experience until she realized the equipment was already broken and went for it. Her story really resonated with many of the students facing similar situations in their research. It is also comforting for students to see that the fear of working on an instrument, fear of failure, and imposter syndrome are something the everyone experiences. In the end, Shannon got her instrument working and now feels much more comfortable working on things. The manufacturer even calls her for help sometimes as she has gained so much experience and seen many of the common failure modes of the equipment. Shannon also co-hosts a weekly podcast, the Don’t Panic Geocast that is worth listening to!

Shannon Dulin giving her presentation

At the conclusion of the formal program, some students left for the airport while others stayed behind to work on projects they had brought with them. Some wanted to track down noise on an instrument, others wanted to get new instruments up and running, and some just wanted to spend more time working on the skills they had learned during the week such as welding and machining. We had people working in the shop until around 6:30 that night when everyone was happy with the progress made on their projects (again detailed in more blog posts). We all loaded up and went to a final dinner, said our goodbyes, and made plans for more projects.

StickNet team troubleshooting their instruments
Student welding metal
Students looking inside the control box of a StickNet

It Takes a Village

Running any kind of workshop is a massive undertaking, but we were really fortunate to have such a great team and great community members to help us out. From the folks at the brewery, our staff in the shop, our families, Nance Machine, Alternative Design, many local business owners, members of the public, and of course the engaged students – THANK YOU! Events with such collaboration, synergistic energy, and actual field work take huge amounts of effort and you all made it look easy.

We also had the pleasure of working with Melissa Michael, who, despite not receiving the funding to evaluate our workshop, still donated her time and efforts in designing our survey and attending several lectures and events to evaluate ways we can improve our instructional methods and student experience. Not all heroes wear capes, but everyone involved in education should be issued one immediately.

Finally, thank you to the local VFW post who let us use their facility for the classroom sessions. Their post is next door to our shop and makes work sessions very convenient. We’re happy to support our local veterans and appreciate them being such great neighbors to our company.

What’s Next?

We’re just starting to sift through the surveys from this year, but overall the changes we made from 2021 were very well received. I’m sure we’re going to learn new things to try next year, because education is a science, and like any scientific advances, it requires experimentation. Our team can’t wait to see what next year’s workshop holds. If you are a PI on a grant, NSF or otherwise, please remember to write in travel and conference funds to send your students next summer!

Our team has also been tossing around the idea for different themed workshops based on demand. For example, many students requested to spend several days on LabView programming, a few days on actually building up electronic signal chains for sensors, or more time learning how to calibrate instruments. Each of these could itself make a more focused workshop and further extend the skills learned during GEARS. Stay tuned as plans are being made on how to make 2023 the best year of learning yet!