2023 brought about a lot of changes for our business. We moved facilities (and were therefore shutdown for some time) in the early part of the year, we welcomed another team member, and we added lots of new capabilities. All of this chaos meant that we ended up delaying the workshop from August until November. Good things come to those who wait though, and this made our third consecutive year of hosting the Generalist Electromechanics for Applied Researchers (GEARS) workshop!

We continued to build on the feedback from the previous two years of teaching the workshop and made this the best year yet. Until our team started hosting this back in 2021, there simply wasn’t such a long, regular, and hands-on style of workshop in existence! Especially not one targeted at graduate students, faculty, and technical staff. In fact, spending time hands on with tools and gaining experience building and repairing equipment was a gaping hole in the education available to non-engineers. The experimental, observational, and applied scientists we service have traditionally either depended on technical staff in the laboratories or group lore passed down between students to keep their equipment running.

We often see that scientists and students view themselves as users of the equipment in their labs and when it breaks they are unable to repair it. While it is true that their primary job is to do science, having a basic set of troubleshooting skills can save a lot of time and even more money. Furthermore, having some basic hands on skills and design sense can help scientists design the next new instrument to keep pushing the boundaries of their research.

Gaining these skills is becoming even more important as every year we see another university machine shop close down or another career technician retire, only to not be replaced. Why exactly this is happening depends on the particular situation, but you can bet it comes down to the bottom line and maximizing research output while minimizing costs. There is also just not the support from funding agencies for these “extracurricular” activities of research support that there used to be. As a collective of researchers in a variety of disciplines have told us, we are headed for a reckoning. This upcoming calamity will mean having funding to do science, but no longer possessing the technical knowledge of how to do the required legwork.

While we are a relatively small company, these skills are exactly why we exist. We aid researchers in doing their science by providing a skilled team of designers and fabricators. The good news is, those skills are in demand and we keep very busy. The less good news is that some of the projects that come in would require only some basic training to be accomplished by the researchers themselves. While we don’t want to turn away business, it would benefit everyone if our skills are used on the hard problems in which scientists need help. It would save the scientists time and money and let us focus on those projects in which we can provide the most value.

The week of the GEARS workshop, students are exposed to a wide variety of tools, skills, and common mistakes. While our students don’t leave as experts in any of the skills introduced, they have a basic awareness that it exists and have had some exposure to it.

What We Changed

We talked quite a bit in last year’s blog post about what we changed from the first workshop. Mainly we focused on restructuring the time of the students to have a higher mix of lecture and lab activities. We also added a project that the students worked on in three teams. Overall this new structure worked really well. The feedback had a universal signal that the projects were the way to go and provided massive real-world experience to the students. Getting to design something, then have to build it and realize you should have designed it better is an invaluable experience. Add to that having to then use the instrument you designed, troubleshoot it, and process the data exposes other technical facets that students have likely never thought of.

For this year, we did keep the idea of projects, but tweaked it a bit more. Instead of having the project groups rotate through stations to work on the mechanical, electrical, and programming aspects of their build, we had just general work time. Groups could go to an area of the shop and get help on some aspect of their project all together or split up and send members to different areas of the shop to quicken their progress.

The project ideas were evolving right up until the workshop began and we presented the students with three options: a coil spring seismometer, a Lehman seismometer, and a temperature probe radiation shield project. Students ranked their choices for which project to work on and naturally distributed themselves pretty well. One student wrote in another option though – they wanted to build a electric field mill. After a quick group discussion, we decided to have four projects instead of three!

Things like this rapid iteration and changing of the workshop on the fly to suit the interests of a particular cohort is one of the great strengths of the program. We have more material ready to go than we could present in two weeks, so often if a topic or project comes up, we can rearrange and accommodate it. This year we also had a significantly smaller cohort of nine students. Being that we just moved facilities, we wanted a smaller group to help test run things. As it turned out, we may try to keep to smaller group sizes as the cohesion and interaction was huge.

We also took the opportunity to swap out some tours and activities from prior years for other options. Some will stay, some may not. We removed one of the factory tours from prior years, but replaced it with on-site Swagelok training for example. We also removed a few more advanced lectures in favor of spending more time on things like how to use a multimeter and actually giving students the time to practice these skills they just learned.

In addition to switching some content out, we also partnered with LabJack of Colorado, who make some of our absolute favorite data acquisition and control devices. This year they provided units for the groups to use to record their project data. We would like to continue to work the DAQ devices into the curriculum and use them to further illustrate concepts like filtering with more hands on activities like we did with the multimeter lecture.

Day 1

Day 1 began with introductions, an orientation to the facility, and our standard talk about shop safety. We want everyone to have fun and get their hands dirty, but we also need to keep everyone safe. Then we got started with an interactive lecture on how to use a multimeter. This has to be one of the most useful skills anyone can learn from the workshop, so we spent longer on it than we ever have before. We mixed in some theory too, talking about Ohm’s law. Students calculated the value of a current limiting resistor needed for a simple LED circuit powered by a 9V battery. They then used the meter to find the right resistor. Each student then built up the circuit. We measured voltage drop across the LED as well as how much current was being drawn by the circuit and compared this with our calculations. It was also a good opportunity to talk about component tolerances. While skills like using a multimeter are easy things to put up on the projector and everyone nods along, putting hands on was a different story. Suddenly the concepts couldn’t be abstract anymore and by the end of the morning everyone had a good handle on how they could use a multimeter in their work. 

Student soldering during the 2023 GEARS workshop

We also introduced soldering and had the students practice by building one of our through hole/surface mount Blinky Kits. Every year this activity is a hit. Not only do students get to practice a really important skill, but at the end they have a working circuit board that they built! Some students took the opportunity this year to laser engrave their names onto their circuit boards as well.

The afternoon had a few more lectures and then about 90 minutes for the groups to meet and discuss their projects. They worked on our new work benches which have white board table tops. By the end of the day they had drawings of their concepts and many had gathered materials they would need from around the shop, and next-day orders were placed for anything else they needed.

Drawings on the a workbench table top

The people, organization, hospitality, and hands on nature paired with theory made it so good!

After a long day of building and learning, we hosted an outreach event at the local brewery, The Ivory Bill. The purpose of the event was to be a hybrid poster session and mixer. Students brought posters on their research areas to share with the public, but also with each other. We heard lots of great conversations and everyone left with a better understanding of the challenges their colleagues were facing in their research. The weather was pretty cold, so unlike last year there was not time out on the patio looking at instruments. A big thank you to the brewery owners, Dorothy and Casey, for letting us host the event a second time and helping promote it.

Students presenting posters at the Ivory Bill Brewery

Day 2

Students started off the second day of the workshop with the Gentry Fire Department. Fire chief Dr. Vester Cripps graciously agreed to bring some firefighters, trucks, and extinguishers out to teach the students how to safely put out a small fire. Remember though that this is a hands on workshop, so we didn’t just talk about it! Every student put out a real fire with a real fire extinguisher. This is a skill that will serve them well not only in the lab, but at home. This is a great service provided by the fire department and we can’t thank them enough.

We followed up the live fire activity with a new event – on site Swagelok training. Kansas City Valve and Fitting sent two field sales engineers down with loads of high pressure plumbing supplies. Many of our students have Swagelok fittings and tube in their labs, but none had ever been properly trained on installation of the fittings or really had the product explained to them. John and Michael did a great job of introducing the product and accessories as well as letting students practice building up fittings.

Student putting out fire in the live fire exercise
Swagelok training being presented

After a short break, we had a couple more lectures before lunch and prepared to work on projects in the afternoon. Most of the afternoon was the beginnings of the build process for students. This first day of building was a bit slow as everyone was learning what tools were available and how to use them. These smaller more personal interactions really allowed us to go deep with students interests in groups of 1-3. Some students wanted to run the mill while others were more interested in the electronics. One group even made it their goal to use as many manufacturing tools and techniques as possible to complete their project.

Student turning a part on the lathe

There was a great variety of topics (some very new, some I was familiar with) and lots of opportunities for hands-on learning. I also liked the visits/guest lectures.

Students that wanted to go up in a small general aviation aircraft also had the opportunity to do so on the mornings of day two and day three. In the past we have done this in the evenings, but with the reduced light hours in November, we elected to do it early morning before class started. Six students went flying this year and everyone had a great time.

Pulling out a small airplane

Day 3

The morning of day 3 was a mix of lecture and lab. Students had a chance to glue strain gauges to test coupons and learn how frustrating they can be to work with. While our rock mechanics students all will work with strain gauges at some point in their career, this is one activity that we may swap out next year. In the end we mostly saw students become frustrated with their soldering skills. Even worse, we ran out of time for two years in a row to actually calibrate the load cells the students built.

In the afternoon we again focused on building instruments. This was the last big block of building time. We had a line at the lathe at one point! Again, all of the students really liked being able to focus on areas that interested them and get help on building a complete project instead of doing some simple task on a variety of machines.

Group of students working on an instrument
Student welding metal

[I liked the] hybrid nature of theory mixed with projects and trying things…

Day 4

We squeezed in lectures on topics selected by the students in the morning and had some very good group discussions on failure modes of field equipment. There was also a great conversation around where to buy things – what companies carry certain items and if they are very easy to work with.

After lunch the group met at Nance Machine for a tour of a production machine shop and to get some insight on how little design changes can drastically change the cost of a part. Every year we really enjoy going to see other local businesses that we collaborate with and letting them pass on their expertise.

Once everyone was back at our shop we had time for electives and finishing up the projects. The idea with the elective time was that students could  have the opportunity to work with tools they hadn’t used yet, but wanted to. Some wanted to weld, others wanted to learn more about surface mount soldering, and yet others liked making parts on the lathe. Everyone had a working instrument by the end of the day!

Students touring Nance Machine
Student welding

As per tradition at this point, we met for a BBQ at the Leeman house. Again since it was later in the year and darker and colder we didn’t spend as much time outdoors, but still had a lot of fun and there were students spending time together late into the evening.

Building projects from start to finish was initially intimidating but I really benefited from it. I recommend keeping that project style…

Day 5

Friday morning the students got their presentations together on their projects by analyzing data and putting together a complete project brief for non-specialists in just a couple of hours. We were fortunate enough to be joined by members of the community including our banker from Arvest bank and local engineering company Alternative Design and Manufacturing. The Gentry Chamber of Commerce provided a box lunch from Pioneer Pizza in Gentry and after the presentations there were a lot of questions and demonstrations.

Finally, Dr. Shannon Dulin from the University of Oklahoma gave her talk on not being afraid to try to work on your lab equipment. Each year her presentation gets longer as she puts more and more successes under her belt! We then rounded out the day by working on projects the students brought from their labs.

Completed student project of an electric field mill
Shannon Dulin presenting her talk

This workshop has been the best workshop I have ever attended. I learned so much and gained more confidence in my abilities and skills. This will help SO much in my research.

Funding Model

Last year, we applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for support to increase the accessibility of the workshop to all students. In the end, NSF did not feel comfortable funding a private company, even through a university partner, to run the workshop. They proposed a university operated training center, which flies in the face of all the advantages of a workshop operated by people doing this type of work everyday. Especially as people of this type are disappearing from academia as already mentioned.

We have decided to continue to operate with the “conference model.” Basically, we will continue to run the workshop as a private company and principal investigators will need to write funds into their grant budgets to fund student’s attendance of the workshop. This does require more work on the PI’s part and overall is likely a reduction in the accessibility of the workshop on the whole, but it is the only model that is feasible unless there is a change of heart from the potential funding agencies.

Since year one we have kept the registration fee very low – $750 per student. Any training of this caliber in the industrial world is more than that PER DAY! While it is more expensive than some conferences, we have a significant amount of consumables each year. We don’t make money putting this on – in fact we consider it lucky if we break even! The goal of these workshops is education and customer interaction.

Ideally, we could build out the equipment pool for students to use a bit more if we charged a little more for the workshop, but that is a continuing internal debate. Building the equipment pool little by little is still happening, but not as quickly as we would like. Ideally we could even send each student home with a few basic tools, like a multimeter.

The facilitators were knowledegable, flexible, friendly , and good teachers.

Wrap Up

We’ll have to detail each of the projects in their own blog posts as this one is already getting pretty long and they each deserve their own. We really thought that this was the best version of the project-based idea yet as everyone left with a lot of hands on time being guided by professionals instead of having seen even more slides than the year before.

As always, it takes a lot of work to put this on and it just wouldn’t be possible without some of our partners. The Ivory Bill, Nance Machine, and Alternative Design all donated time, facilities, or both. The Gentry fire department and chamber contributed as already mentioned. Even McKee foods (manufacturers of Little Debbie) got involved and sent everyone home with lots of snacks. Kansas City Valve and Fitting sent their engineers down and LabJack was able to provide us with the data acquisition hardware used for the projects. We’re really excited to be able to work with people and products we believe in and use and share them with our students.

Next year will undoubtedly be even better as we continue to build our experience with the GEARS program! We are thinking that we will shoot for hosting it after the high heat of August, but before the darkness and cold of November. I’m sure there will be projects and even more improved curriculum. Don’t forget to write in sending your students and yourself to GEARS 2024 when budgeting in your grant applications!

Make it longer! I loved everything about the workshop and I think it was organized so well.

John Leeman
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