Tech Tour Day Four, Part Two: CMU Tops In Makers, Lakes

MT. PLEASANT — It’s tough to visit two schools in one day on the Tech Tour.

Next time, Central Michigan University, you get more time. Because what I saw Monday afternoon begged for greater explanation.

The CMU visit of The Engineering Society of Detroit’s 2015 Fall Tech Tour, sponsored by Michigan Technological University, had plenty of highlights in just three stops.

My time at CMU started with Donald G. Uzarski, who has one of the academic world’s truly cool jobs. Not only is he director of the CMU Institute for Great Lakes Research, he’s also director of the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island.

What’s new in Don Uzarski’s world? Ongoing water monitors on Beaver Island ferries, a new instrument on CMU’s major Great Lakes research vessel, and oh yes, another $10 million in research funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Boats first. CMU is working with the company that runs the ferries that serve Beaver Island — two boats, twice a day each, on a 64-mile roundtrip — to fit them with sophisticated water quality monitors. That would give the institute unprecedented new data every day on current conditions on Lake Michigan, including temperature, nutrient concentrations, dissolved oxygen, pH, conductance and more.

“NOAA and others have stations in the Great Lakes basin to monitor water quality — to address pollution issues, climate change issues,” Uzarski said. “But there’s this void in northern lake Michigan that I think we can fill.”

The project will cost between $30,000 and $50,000, and Uzarski is seeking funding from a variety of sources.

The institute has also just taken delivery of a $50,000 piece of equipment called a CTD sampler for the Chippewa, the university’s biggest research vessel, a 38-footer. It can grab samples at six different levels of water down hundreds of feet.

Finally, Uzarski’s lab has now received a second $10 million, five-year grant (extending one received in 2010) to study the chemical, physical, and biological aspects of every single Great Lakes coastal wetland. Uzarski says proudly that that includes 10,000 miles of shoreline, more than the East and West coasts combined.

Uzarski said much Great Lakes wetlands have already been lost — up to 90 percent in places like Saginaw Bay. Understanding what’s going on in the wetlands is key to understanding their health, and their role as the filter of the Great Lakes.

The effort has already paid off with new scientific knowledge, like the discovery of widespread infestations of the faucet snail, an invasive species that carries a parasite that kills Great Lakes waterfowl. The institute has also discovered a way to analyze the ear bones of fish to determine the trace chemicals in the water the fish was swimming in at specific points in time.

Overall, he said, the southern part of the Great Lakes basin is enjoying better water quality than a generation ago — but is threatened by new invasive species.

Uzarski did stand up for one invasive species, though — a stand he said occasionally makes him less than popular. The dense phragmites plants that have taken over so many Great Lakes wetlands, he said, actually act as a very effective pollution filter for runoff from land — a far better filter than the less intensively growing vegetation they replaced.

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My next visit was with Terry Lerch, interim director of the CMU School of Engineering and Technology. Lerch told me that like most Michigan engineering programs, enrollment at CMU is going up — to about 800 engineering, engineering technology, and computer science students this year, up from 680.

“We’re reaching capacity in a number of programs,” he said. “Mechanical engineering programs continue to be the fastest growing and the best-enrolled.”

CMU enrolled its first freshmen in mechanical engineering in 2004 and graduated them in 2008. The program, like mechanical engineering technology, is now fully accredited by ABET. CMU enrolled its first computer engineering students four years ago and will work on accreditation once it has graduates.

Lerch also showed me some very cool laboratories at CMU, including an advanced temperature and humidity controlled environmental chamber; labs where researchers are building sensors that can do health assessments by analyzing the chemicals in your sweat; and a high-tech fashion manikin. The manikin, pictured above, is fully wired with dozens of sensors to determine whether a particular fabric or garment is insulative or breathable. In short, it’s a high tech way of figuring out whether that shirt will make you wringing wet with sweat on a humid day.

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My final visit at CMU was with Michael Reuter, director of learning technologies and infrastructure at CMU’s College of Education and Human Services.

There, CMU has established a huge 3D printing laboratory with no less than 30 MakerBot 3D printers.

The lab is the result of $350,000 of university funding.

Right now, the lab is restricted to faculty. But once training has taken place, Reuter says, the lab will be opened to both students and the community — probably sometime next year.

So, get ready to make away, mid-Michigan makers.

Reuter was also a guest on the M2 TechCast, the new Michigan technology podcast I’m co-hosting with Mike Brennan, proprietor of Michigan Technology News. You can check it out in the M2 TechCast archives of http://www.soundcloud.com — it should be up by early Wednesday.

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So, that was my whirlwind, abbreviated, two-hour tour stop at CMU in Mt. Pleasant. As I said, next time, CMU, you get a whole day if you want it. I’m quite certain there is far more cool engineering and technology to see here.

For now, though, I’m turning in for the night in Big Rapids, where the 2015 ESD Fall Tech Tour, sponsored by Michigan Technological University, continues on Tuesday, with a visit to Ferris State University.

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