How UAA’s new thermal system design lab came together

October 15, 2012

Prof. Steffen Peuker talks with students  in the new HVAC lab in the School of Engineering. Steffen Peuker is not just a little excited about a new lab in the engineering building at UAA. The moment we met outside his office, we headed downstairs to Room 111–home of a brand new thermal system design lab, a first for UAA.

(If that’s already too techy for you, relax. We’re talking heating and cooling systems. You like heat in winter, right? These are your experts.)

The door swung open to the sound of floor sanders and a busy crew prepping the 1,400-square-foot space, its windows peering out on the ground level of UAA Drive. Within two and a half weeks, Dr. Peuker hopes to teach his first thermal system design laboratory class in this very space.

Now here’s a detail to turn your head. This mechanical engineering professor, at UAA just a year and half, made the lab a reality with zero university funding. He did it with help from local industry, who generously chipped in cash and equipment, and collaboratively designed training simulators with UAA senior engineering students for their capstone projects.

Together, students and industry professionals developed three educational units to teach thermal design in the new lab—a modular refrigeration unit, an air duct simulator and one for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, called HVAC, which includes a high-tech state of the art automation system.

And it wasn’t just one or two companies that stepped up; it was a fistful. Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

Some delivered cash, others donated equipment. And most importantly, the time industry professionals took to work side-by-side with students on the lab design was —as the popular advertisement says, “priceless.”

Apparently, it takes a village to create a lab! That kind of collaboration doesn’t happen overnight, especially when you are new in town.

Making the industry connections

Peuker learned how to meet and communicate with industry professionals while he worked on a master’s and a doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, There, the industry generously funds an Air Conditioning Research Center to support graduate research projects. Annually, professors present potential research projects, and an industry advisory group selects the projects to be funded. This unique group also puts students in contact with the industry sponsors twice a year, giving the students a chance to report their results annually.

But his sensitivity to industry is even older than that. Back in Germany at the University for Applied Sciences in Mannheim, Peuker interned with Daimler (formerly Daimler-Chrysler) and did so well that he considered going to work for them right after graduation. But an astute manager suggested he push his education further, and consider some international experience that would make him more attractive for promotion in Germany.

That led to his advanced degrees (and a wedding!) in the U.S., but also strongly influenced his appreciation for the academic-industry connection. Industry leaders can tell you the kind of engineers they really need; why not make that communication a reality? He’s brought that sensibility to UAA and is determined that UAA’s mechanical engineering graduates will be well prepared, by industry standards, to fill the HVAC jobs in Alaska.

Informal chat leads to first in-kind donation
Peuker chuckles when he tells this story. He was new to Anchorage, and at a break in the Alaska chapter’s American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) meeting, he happened to meet a representative from KLEBS, mentioning to him that he’d like to create an HVAC lab at UAA.

Peuker replayed their conversation: “ ’I’ve got a 3-ton unit laying around,’ the KLEBS rep offered, ‘…we don’t have any place to put it. You can have it!’” Even though the lab was still a dream in his mind, he accepted.

Another critical moment came when ATS Alaska made a cash donation of $10,000 in the fall of 2011 that allowed Peuker to acquire two air conditioning units that students could dissect and then reconstruct as the first simulator – the modular refrigeration unit that will find its home in the new lab.

From there, Peuker and the lab were off and running.

Leverette Hoover, a UAA alumnus (B.S. Technology, ‘97) and the current general manager in Alaska for Siemens Industry Inc., was an active supporter.

“It was a great opportunity for students to network with different folks,” said Hoover, whose company was involved financially and materially for about six months.  As a fan of “grow your own engineers,” Hoover said the new lab’s design and development included lots of opportunities for industry pros to provide coaching and mentoring for UAA engineering students. Those interactions can be stepping stones to industry jobs later, he said.

Another industry contributor was ATS Alaska, a facilities control company that UAA alumnus Dave Rand (M.B.A. ’99) and Dan Fawcett run.  Speaking for the company and Rand, Fawcett said, “We want to play a role here. We’ve done other things with Dr. Peuker—talk to classes, meet students—but it’s not all benevolence. We also get to know good people and we hire them.”

But industry support was not just in equipment, money and donated professional time. Siemens invited Peuker to visit their proprietary training center in Chicago so that he could see how their learning labs are set up. UAA found the travel funds, but Siemens assumed his expenses during his two-day visit to the center.

Next stop: UAA’s new engineering building
Peuker knows his lab will be in Room 111 for the next four years. Then it will migrate over to UAA’s new engineering building, scheduled to open in 2016 and prominently facing Providence Drive in front of the Wells Fargo Sports Complex.

If he was excited about his first location, he’s ecstatic about the lab’s permanent home, on the top floor of the new building, right next to the real-life HVAC units that will actually heat and cool the entire building.

“It’ll be terrific,” Peuker says. “In the lab, we can look inside a unit and see how it’s constructed. Then we can go next-door and look at the actual unit working.”

He’s even considering keeping the ceiling tiles out of his permanent lab so students can look through to the actual building ducts—the very equipment they’ll design and work on as professionals.

Peuker has priced the educational units he would have had to purchase for the new lab had local industry not stepped up and helped. Get ready: $250,000.

On a zero-budget, that would be hard to impossible. But by piecing together critically timed cash and in-kind donations, he’s assembled a lab at the cost of about $25,000.

“That’s a 1:10 ratio of benefits to us,” he said, smiling

 Understandably, he—and local industry leaders—can be proud.

Sidebar: The student perspective

Engineering student Micah Johnson worked with three other students (see list below), essentially turning a window air-conditioning unit inside out for display in the new lab, so that future students would have a way to see the internal parts.

“It took a whole semester,” Johnson wrote in an email.  At one point, “I remember looking at all those pieces and thinking I didn’t remember where most of them went!”  

His professional interactions included John Henshaw of Aurora Refrigeration and Michael Hernandez from Johnson Controls. He described Hernandez as “a massive resource; he taught us how to braze pipes over the phone!”

Johnson said he’s proud of the project and considers it a great visual aid for students that will really bridge the gap between diagrams and real world parts.

“It was a fun challenge to basically reverse-engineer the whole thing!” he wrote.

Here are the lab’s three units and the students who worked on them.

MREL 8000 (Fall 2011 semester, finished Dec. 2011)

  • Angus Bromaghin
  • Sean Glasheen
  • Micah Johnson
  • Sharon Oyao

Air Duct Simulator (Spring 2012, finished May 2012)

  • Grant Birmingham
  • Travis Acol
  • Daniel Hoffman
  • Mike Rudd

A student video on the project, Grant Birmingham speaking.
HVAC Simulator (Spring 2012)

  • Scott Miller
  • Eric Snyder
  • Truman Edin
  • Russell Darling
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