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Session F4D

The Use of Applied Process Control Systems Design

to Attract Engineering Students
Jeffrey R. Mountain
Associate Professor, The University of Texas at Tyler, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Tyler, TX 75799

Abstract - Hands-on, design oriented experiences have been engineers, there is a need to identify a multidisciplinary
shown to increase awareness of engineering as a profession industry that has significant employment opportunities. There
and to attract students to enter engineering programs. Most is also a need to develop a strategy that will make this industry
of these programs, while very successful, specifically target appealing to prospective engineering students.
highly specialized industries. In an effort to appeal to a In an effort to inspire more students to adequately prepare
wider variety of engineering disciplines, the University of themselves to enter university-level engineering programs, the
Texas at Tyler, with the aid of National Science Foundation University of Texas at Tyler, in partnership with the National
grant funding, has proposed to use the multidisciplinary Science Foundation, has proposed the development of an
process control industry as a theme to attract students into integrated approach to attract and retain engineering students
the engineering profession. The topic area of process using the multidisciplinary field of process controls as the
controls has applicability to a wide range of engineering topical focus. This approach proposes to combine a specially
disciplines including agricultural, chemical, electrical, developed system of components with an array of activities to
mechanical, and petroleum engineering. This paper will achieve an increase in the quantity and quality of prospective
describe how the Process Control Breadboard, a proof of engineering students. The Process Control Breadboard is a
concept system developed to attract and retain engineering proof-of-concept system that is both a demonstration tool and
students, is being used as both a demonstration tool and a a hands-on design, build, test platform. Although fully
hands-on design, build, test activity for K-12 outreach capable of providing university-level design capability to help
activities. Preliminary results from initial outreach activities retain students throughout their baccalaureate engineering
will be presented along with the plan for future activities to degree programs [4], this paper will focus on the use of the
stimulate interest, awareness and enrollment of highly system as a tool for K-12 outreach activities. Students in
qualified engineering students. grades 8-12 are specifically targeted, since success with this
group will provide a near term solution for relieving the
Index Terms – Hands-on design activities, K-12 Outreach, shortage of U.S. born and educated engineering professionals.
“Development of a Process Control Breadboard System to
Attracting and inspiring students to enter the engineering Attract and Retain Engineering Students” presents an
profession has achieved a high level of recent attention. A key integrated approach to increase the number students entering
factor in attracting and retaining students in engineering and completing university programs in preparation for
programs is the level of pre-college preparation. While all entering the engineering profession. The project has three
high school students must successfully complete a minimum goals formulating the strategy to attract and retain future
level of mathematics and science coursework, many of these engineering students. The first goal is the development of the
minimal programs do not adequately prepare students to system hardware. The second goal is to use the developed
directly enter an engineering program without remediation. system as a means to attract area high school and middle
As a whole, secondary school students are not sufficiently school students to enter the engineering profession. Third, it is
motivated or prepared in science and mathematics as needed proposed to integrate the breadboard system into the
to meet the challenges of the 21st century [1]. An emphasis mechanical engineering curriculum at each undergraduate
on stimulating interest is evidenced by the growth of programs academic level to improve the retention rate of engineering
such as FIRST [2] and Botball [3]. In addition, programs students at The University of Texas at Tyler (UT-Tyler).
related to space exploration have also been successful at The first goal is almost fully realized. Development of
stimulating interest in engineering careers. Most of these the system hardware is still in progress, but most of the major
programs, while successful at creating a higher level of initial system components have been developed. A general
interest, are in highly specialized, selective employment description of the breadboard system and the inspiration for its
industries that are not able to employ large numbers of development will be presented in a later section of this
engineers. In order to increase the completion rate of graduate manuscript.
0-7803-8552-7/04/$20.00 © 2004 IEEE October 20 – 23, 2004, Savannah, GA
34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Session F4D
The second goal, to attract students to enter an Process control system performance is not strictly
engineering program has three major objectives: a) take the determined by the element selection. The physical
system to the students, b) bring the students to the system and arrangement of elements can significantly alter the system
c) gather data from the students that interact with the system dynamics, introducing time lags or changing the frequency
to determine if they will enter an engineering program. Both and/or time domain response of the system. Given the same
demonstration and hands-on activities will be used to achieve set of components, different configurations will display
the goal and objectives. Students in grades 8 – 12 fall in a different operational characteristics; potentially rendering a
range where they can comprehend the concepts presented and viable system of components functionally unusable.
appreciate the relevance of process controls to a diverse set of The initial concept for the Process Control Breadboard
industries. was proposed at the American Society of Mechanical
The third goal, to integrate the use of the system across Engineers International Mechanical Engineering Conference
the UT-Tyler Mechanical Engineering curriculum is presently and Exposition 2002 (ASME – IMECE 2002) [7]. Comments
in progress, having been integrated into Senior and Junior resulting from the peer review process displayed an
level courses. Integration into a Freshman-level course is enthusiasm for this design approach. Consequently, an
currently underway and a sophomore level offering is unsolicited proposal was prepared and submitted to the
pending. Initial impressions from students are generally National Science Foundation (NSF). Based on positive
positive and a refinement of the curriculum integration is reviews of technical and pedagogical merit, funding for
planned for the next course offerings. development and implementation, over a three-year time
While a discussion of achievements related to the second frame, was obtained from the Engineering Education and
goal is of primary interest, it is difficult to describe activities Centers Division of NSF [8].
based on a uniquely developed hardware system without a
description of the system. Consequently, a brief discussion of THE BREADBOARD SYSTEM
the inspiration for the Process Control Breadboard system, and Following the first eight months of the project, the breadboard
an introduction to the basic components, follows. concept has evolved to include the backplane component,
THE INSPIRATION flow-control valves, heat generators and exchangers, sensors,
vessels, pumps and connectors. A system design can be
The design, build and test of industry relevant thermal/fluid quickly assembled with essentially no tools and low force
systems in an academic environment are frequently hindered using quick-connect devices. The backplane contains
by the costs, of both time and money, involved in system multiple, equipotential circuits with access points located on a
realization. The acquisition of specialized materials and uniformly spaced grid. Figure 1 is a digital photograph of a
components, the need for skilled tradesmen to assemble the backplane component on a rolling frame.
systems and the time required to coordinate and realize the
physical design are factors that cause many education-based
thermal/fluid system designs to become “paper only” or
“virtual” designs. While many trainer-based systems exist,
selection and configuration design of these systems are
completed by the manufacturers, effectively negating any
academic value as design education tools. The challenge is to
remove the need for single use components or materials, as
well as the need for skilled trades fabrication, while
maintaining a viable design education experience.
What came to mind is a breadboard-type system,
conceptually similar to electrical or mechanical breadboard
systems used to realize circuits and transmissions [5, 6]. These
systems support a variety of compatible components and
require minimal tooling and skills to complete the assembly of FIGURE 1
a system. Inherent to the concept, students have the ability to BACKPLANE COMPONENT OF THE PROCESS CONTROL BREADBOARD SYSTEM.
select and configure components to realize a working model
of a system design. While the quantity and variety of Each backplane contains 22 equipotential, manifold
components are limited, the open-ended aspect of system circuits with 5 access points in each circuit. The circuits are
design is not severely compromised by limiting the domain of configured in column format, with two separate rows of
available components. Selection design and configuration circuits.
design are recognized design realms that exercise the Manually actuated and pneumatically actuated valve
analytical and decision-making skills required of aspiring elements provide manual and fully automatic control
engineers. Constraining the design domain only increases the capability. At present, a variety of manual valve sizes and
ability to realize the design in an academic environment. types have been configured to work with the backplane

0-7803-8552-7/04/$20.00 © 2004 IEEE October 20 – 23, 2004, Savannah, GA

34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Session F4D
component. Figure 2 illustrates a sample of the different the breadboard backplane, the foundation component of the
manually actuated valve components available. system. Combined with the modular nature of the components
and selection of components that do not require extraordinary
power or water resources, a demonstration and hands-on
activity can be delivered to area middle, junior high, and high
schools with relative ease. Each backplane structure supports
two independent backplanes in a back-to-back configuration,
allowing for a pre-configured demonstration system on one
FIGURE 2 side and a hands-on activity on the other. Since the system is
A GLOBE VALVE, A BALL VALVE AND A BUTTERFLY VALVE REPRESENT A capable of prototyping fully automatic process control
SAMPLE OF MANUALLY ACTUATED VALVE TYPES AVAILABLE TO ACCOMPLISH systems, as part of the goal to achieve curriculum integration,
a “whiz bang” system demonstrating the design objective of
the hands-on activity can be configured. This approach should
Heat exchange elements, such as water heaters, steam stimulate interest in process control automation and ultimately
generators or shell and tube heat exchangers provide sources initiate inquiry about engineering as a career.
of controllable process media where selection and Bringing the students to the system will be accomplished
configuration of components can greatly influence system during open house activities occurring at various times during
performance. Compressed air can also be used as a the year and during weeklong summer day camps. While the
controllable medium, creating additional design applications. first day camps will not occur until Summer 2004, high school
Figure 3 illustrates two shell and tube heat exchanger students from four area schools, both public and private,
configurations, developed for use with the breadboard system. attended an open house activity during Fall 2003. The Process
Control Breadboard system was a featured, hands-on exercise
during this open house activity. A description of this initial
activity and a summary of the feedback from both students
and teachers in attendance are presented in the sections to
The engineering programs at UT-Tyler have regularly
conducted hands-on, on campus, outreach activities for area
EXCHANGERS HAVE BEEN DEVELOPED TO READILY INTEGRATE INTO PROCESS high schools. While the activities in previous years, such as
SYSTEMS USING THE PROCESS CONTROL BREADBOARD SYSTEM. the Scrap Pile Challenge [9], have been well received, the cost
per student, in both time and funding, has been considered
To complement the control actuators, a variety of sensor relatively high. In 2003, an open house format was adopted so
components have been configured to interface with the that greater numbers of prospective students could be exposed
Breadboard system. Devices to measure flow rate, to a broader view of UT-Tyler engineering programs. The
temperature and pressure, with either computer interface or open house is structured so that hands-on activities,
human readable displays, are included to provide additional showcasing each engineering program, are integrated with a
elements for control system design and operation. Many of targeted tour of the laboratory facilities. UT-Tyler students
these process properties use the measurement of related perform demonstrations, conduct the tours, and assist with the
properties and require the application of constituent equations hands-on activities. Each hands-on activity is to be completed
to determine the property of interest. The application of in 30 minutes and needs to accommodate 15 to 20 high school
mathematics and physics to determine the value of control participants. The first open house was conducted in spring
variables provides an interface to the secondary school 2003. During the Fall 2003 open house, the Process Control
educational experience. Breadboard system became the focus of the Mechanical
While a complete description of the system capabilities Engineering program’s hands-on activity.
will not be presented, the previous outline will hopefully be The design problem presented to the students is analogous
sufficient for a basic understanding of the systems capability to the mixing process of a bathtub or shower valve, but was
and operation. With the general description of the system posed as a chemical production process; two chemicals must
presented, it is now possible to describe how the second goal, be mixed at a specific temperature in order to achieve
to attract students to enter an engineering program, will be maximum saleable product. Mixing was accomplished by
achieved. introducing hot and cold water into a common manifold with a
single exit connection. The concept of performance constraints
ATTRACTING STUDENTS TO THE ENGINEERING PROFESSION was introduced; a minimum allowable temperature was
The first strategy to increase student interest requires porting specified, symbolizing the temperature at which usable
the system to area schools. To help achieve this objective, product would be produced, and a maximum allowable
lightweight components were selected for the construction of temperature was specified, symbolizing the combustion
0-7803-8552-7/04/$20.00 © 2004 IEEE October 20 – 23, 2004, Savannah, GA
34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Session F4D
temperature that would lead to catastrophic failure. The level of engagement was typical for each of the four groups of
students were told that falling below the minimum production students that were rotated through this activity during this
temperature, after initial startup, could cost the company open house. It should be noted that a high percentage of
money and the design team their “job.” Since the breadboard female participants were actively engaged in all aspects of the
backplanes are arranged in back-to-back pairings, two teams exercise; a result that was desirable, but not necessarily
shared hot water supplies and a common cold water expected. Figure 5 shows a team adjusting their system to
connection. This created an integrated disturbance due to the operate at their specified set point and illustrates the active
system interactions. Each cold water system was equipped engagement of the female participants.
with a valve that would reduce the available cold water and
initiate an external disturbance.
The activity began with an introduction to the system and
the engineering student assistants and included a presentation
of the objective. A brief demonstration of a system,
configured with additional components, was provided to
illustrate that the objective could be realized. Brief
descriptions of valves, based on their color-coded handles and
adjustment characteristics, were provided since valve selection
was one of the principle design decisions to be made. The
shared resources for hot water and cold water were pre-
configured and each team was provided with a temperature
probe port connector, digital thermometer and effluent hose
connection so that the systems could be completed and tested
in the time allotted. Student assistants helped locate
component parts, but provided only minimal technical
assistance; the goal was to have the high school students get
their hands-on experience.
Teams were allowed approximately 18 minutes to select, FIGURE 5
assemble and test their systems. Actuating a disturbance THE SPECIFIED SET POINT.
valve, once complementary teams had completed their system
assembly, increased the excitement level and appeared to fully
engage the students in an effort to stabilize their systems. All ACTIVITY ASSESSMENT
of the students appeared to appreciate the complexity of
disturbance problem, as well as the problems associated with At the conclusion of the activity student assistants
the shared resources. Figure 4 shows student groups disconnected the systems and returned the components to their
beginning to configure their systems by selecting an initial storage locations while each participant was provided with a
location for the temperature probe connector. simple survey to evaluate the activity. Questions were
numerically rated on a scale from 1 to 5 and accompanied by a
linguistic equivalent phrase to assist in the rating procedure.
Table I summarizes the results from 43 survey respondents.
In addition, a free form comments area was provided. More
than 1/3 of the respondents felt compelled to provide a
comment. The only negative commentary provided was
“Could be more intricate.” There was at least 1 comment that
was focused more on the open house experience as a whole,
rather than specifically targeted at the process control activity.
Although no specific demographic data was obtained,
approximately one third of the high school participants were
Given the wording of the survey instrument, evaluation
scale and the limited exposure time for the activity, the survey
results indicate an apparently successful initial offering. In
addition, comments provided by teachers accompanying the
FIGURE 4 students were all positive and encouraging with regards to the
The photograph illustrates a significant number of
students were actively engaged while working on the project,
although 100% active participation was not achieved. This
0-7803-8552-7/04/$20.00 © 2004 IEEE October 20 – 23, 2004, Savannah, GA
34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Session F4D
TABLE I junior high and middle school teachers during a regional Math
Counts competition; a mathematics competition for middle
QUESTION AVERAGE school students sponsored by the Texas Society of
(LINGUISTIC EQUIVALENT) Professional Engineers. Many of the teachers indicated a
HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE willingness to promote the camps to their students and several
“HANDS-ON” COMPONENT OF THIS 4.59 students have already pre-registered for the 2004 camps.
Additional meetings with teachers and school administrators,
MENTAL DIFFICULTY LEVEL OF THIS 3.19 accompanied by demonstrations of the breadboard system, are
ACTIVITY? (IT TOOK SOME THOUGHT) planned to further advertise the summer day camp concept.
HOW DID THIS ACTIVITY AFFECT 3.36 The necessity of increasing the quantity and quality of
YOUR AWARENESS OF ENGIEERING? (LEARNED SOMETHING NEW) graduate engineers requires attracting and encouraging well
YOUR INTEREST IN ENGINEERING? (SOMEWHAT INTERESTED) prepared students to enter engineering programs. The use of
IF YOU HAD A CHANCE TO ATTEND the process control industry as a theme to inspire interest in
A SUMMER DAY CAMP THAT 3.51 the engineering profession represents an attempt to use a
FEATURED A VARIETY OF THIS TYPE (PROBABLY) conventional, broad spectrum, engineering topic to achieve an
increase engineering enrollments. Initial activities using the
Process Control Breadboard system appear to have been
successful at stimulating interest in the engineering profession,
FUTURE DIRECTIONS and additional activities targeting a broader group of students
have been planned.
The open house activity previously outlined represents the Even if fully successful, the activities described represent
first time that the Process Control Breadboard system has been only half of a planned attract and retain strategy. The missing
used in a K-12 activity. Given the positive response to this pieces include integrating hands-on, process control activities
type of activity, continued inclusion in future open house and into engineering curricula and tracking the success of the
recruiting activities is almost assured. But the limitations approach as a means for increasing the number of engineering
imposed by these types of activities cannot provide all of the graduates. Follow up studies of this strategy to attract and
exposure necessary to fully influence the number and quality retain engineering students will ultimately determine the
of students entering engineering programs; the exposure time effectiveness of the approach.
is too little and the age group too advanced. In order to have
a most powerful and lasting impact, younger students should ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
have greater exposure to this type of hands-on experience.
The next major phase of activities will provide this type of The author would like to acknowledge the National Science
longer-term exposure to a younger group of prospective Foundation’s Division of Engineering Education and Centers
engineers. for funding award number EEC-0234671; without which this
Scheduled for summer 2004 and 2005, weeklong day approach to attract and retain engineering students would not
camps for rising 8th and 9th grade students are currently have an opportunity to be realized. The College of
planned. Students will be encouraged to enroll in advanced Engineering and Computer Science at The University of Texas
high school math and science classes, and to pursue careers in at Tyler must also be acknowledged for their support of the
engineering by discovering the field of process controls. The author’s outreach and educational research activities.
list of planned activities include presentations from engineers REFERENCES
employed by process industry relevant companies, field trips
to process design and fabrication facilities, development of [1] Glenn, J, et. al., “Before It’s Too Late”, A Report to the Nation from the
CAD–based virtual models of breadboard systems, and hands- National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st
on design, build and test of process control systems using the Century, Department of Education, 2000.
breadboard components. Seminar content will emphasize the [2] FIRST— For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology
many engineering disciplines that are employed in the process (2001), FIRST,, (5 Feb. 2002).
control industry and the importance of math and science [3] KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (1999), Botball, KISS Institute for
preparation. University level engineering students will act as Practical Robotics,, (6 Feb. 2002).
mentors and teaching assistants for teams of 3 – 4 students;
[4] Mountain, Jeffrey R., “Applied Process Control Systems Design: Hands-
helping them to recognize how mathematics and science form On Laboratory Experiences for Multiple Disciplines and Academic
the foundation of an engineering education and that a career in Levels,” 34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Savannah,
engineering can be challenging, rewarding, interesting and Georgia, 2004.
fun. [5] Global Specialties – Experimentor Solderless Breadboards,
At present, brochures outlining the summer day camp, Global Specialties
concept have been developed and distributed to several area 2001, (10 Jan. 2002).

0-7803-8552-7/04/$20.00 © 2004 IEEE October 20 – 23, 2004, Savannah, GA

34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Session F4D
[6] Breadboard Components – Product Lines of W. M. Berg Mechanical
Components,, W. M. Berg,
Inc., Invensys Company, 2001, (10 Jan. 2002).
[7] Mountain, Jeffrey R., “Development Of a Breadboard System For
Process Control Design: Part I,” Proceedings of IMECE 2002 ASME
International Mechanical Engineering Conference and Exposition, Vol
2, Paper IMECE2002-32152, 2002.
[8] Mountain, Jeffrey R., “Development of a Process Control Breadboard
System to Attract and Retain Engineering Students,” National Science
Foundation Award Number: EEC-0234671, Division of Engineering
Education and Centers – Unsolicited Proposals Program, 2003.
[9] Mountain, Jeffrey R. and Wells, Robert L., “Engaging K-12 Students
and Teachers Using Competitive Interactive Design,” 32nd ASEE/IEEE
Frontiers in Education Conference, 2002, pp. T3C/12 – T3C/17.

0-7803-8552-7/04/$20.00 © 2004 IEEE October 20 – 23, 2004, Savannah, GA

34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference