October 2, 2022
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Cal Poly, UCSB engineer new research pact

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The two top engineering schools in the Tri-Counties are joining forces in a new center for research and education.

The engineering colleges at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, will bring together graduate and undergraduate students and to let both schools tackle projects they couldn’t take on before.

Cal Poly brings a strong undergraduate program whose students learn first-hand how to design, build and test projects. UCSB brings its well-cited research programs that examine more fundamental questions such as materials.

“To think of a technology and take it close to implementation, you need to blend the theoretical stuff that we do with the more hands-on stuff that Cal Poly brings to the table,” said Tony Evans, the UCSB professor who will serve as that school’s director for the new center. “It seemed like such a natural match between [UCSB] with a focus on doing more fundamental research with the Ph.D. degree and [Cal Poly] doing the more hands-on research through their masters program and their senior project program.”

Cal Poly will get the chance to involve its students in research earlier in their careers, said Tom Mackin, a Cal Poly professor who will serve as Evans’ counterpart.

“I’ve felt for a long time that innovation starts earlier in the curriculum. We shouldn’t wait until people are minted Ph.D.s before they’re innovators,” he said. “The sooner we start challenging students to tackle fundamental problems, the more creative solutions we’ll get.”

The new center will give UCSB the chance to take part in portions of so-called export-controlled projects. Many programs coming from the Department of Defense come with restrictions on what can be shared about the research, and the University of California’s charter bars it from taking funding for such endeavors.

Cal Poly isn’t barred from doing export-controlled research. The school has developed both the organizational infrastructure to handle the projects and has “lockable” lab space to carry them out.

Often export controls are slapped on a whole program while only small parts of it are actually sensitive. The new collaboration between Cal Poly and UCSB would let Cal Poly take the lead on export-controlled research and hand over non-restricted fundamental research questions to UCSB.

“These programs are aimed at making sure crucial defense technology doesn’t fall into the hands of our enemies. Certainly during the past eight years during the Bush administration, all those regulations were tightened,” said Cal Poly’s Mackin. “We found a way to dissect the potential funding relationship so that the UC can stick to its charter and we can stick to ours, and we can still collaborate.”

“[UCSB] wanted to be engaged in that kind of research,” said Mohammad Noori, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Engineering. “Even the doctoral students will spend time here. That will provide our faculty the opportunity to participate in research at the fundamental level, as well as the applied research that we’ve been doing.”

UCSB won’t have to violate any of its rules, and its researchers’ work will be shared as always. But new doors will open.
The collaboration with Cal Poly “enables us to work with some companies for whom our rules and regulations make things a little more of a challenge,” sad Matt Tirrell, dean of UCSB’s College of Engineering.

Transfers fostered

Another goal of the center is to smooth the way for students to begin a graduate education at Cal Poly and transfer to UCSB to purse a doctoral degree.

Two years ago, the schools began such a collaboration with a  joint masters and doctoral program in biomedical and materials engineering funded by Cal Poly alumnus Paul Bonderson. The schools would work to offer similar degrees in other engineering fields.

With many of Cal Poly’s students going straight into industry jobs, the partnership with UCSB might persuade more to go to graduate school instead. That’s particluary important because about 90 percent of Cal Poly engineering graduates are U.S. citizens, Noori said, and there’s a surging demand for engineering Ph.D.s with citizenship.

That makes Cal Poly’s stream of undergraduates attractive to UCSB.

“For us, it’s access to their students, but particularly the solidly educated brand of students that Cal Poly produces at the undergraduate level with an emphasis on project-based learning,” UCSB’s Tirrell said.

The new center will also give students a taste of what contemporary engineering like: working together remotely on projects.

“Engineers of the future are going to have to collaborate, and they’re going to have to collaborate over long distances,” Mackin said. “Their pieces have to fit.”

When the new center takes on a project, one school or the other will take the lead, but both schools will have a co-principal investigator in the research and both schools will contribute faculty co-advisors.

Though the center was just formally announced, Mackin and Evans – who met at UCSB in the 1980s – are already shuttling students back and forth between the two schools.

“The center dots some I’s and crosses some T’s to put things formally in place, but we didn’t need to wait for it to start the process,” UCSB’s Evans said. “It’s looking to be effective, and we’re hoping for great things.”

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