Montana State University

MSU professor hopes to train better engineers with prestigious award

April 18, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


MSU electrical engineering professor Steve Shaw stands in his fuel cell lab. Shaw recently won $400,000 to advance his research and teaching activities. Photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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A tangled extension cord lies in the room. A stray battery shares the floor with a small jar of lip balm and a discarded candy wrapper. A large stack of student papers lists to one side. The sole window shade for the room's only window is fashioned from a three-ring binder and some strategically placed masking tape.

"Cleaning is on my list of things to do," said electrical engineering professor Steve Shaw, of his post-Katrina-like office at Montana State University.

But much bigger things distract him from housekeeping: the bizarre and unpredictable behavior of fuel cells, the need to change engineering education in America; how he's going to use $400,000 he just won for his teaching and research.

The money comes in the form of a National Science Foundation Career award, one of the most prestigious awards the NSF bestows. Shaw plans on using some of the money to make Montana students better engineers in a world where even ideas are being globalized. The award also ties together much of what has been on his mind of late.

"Many Americans associate globalization with call centers and manufacturing jobs going overseas," Shaw said. "But it's also about the fundamental way technologies are developed.

"What's happening is either a big opportunity or a big threat, depending on how you look at it," Shaw continued. "There are challenges we need to meet in the next 15 years or the U.S. will fall behind in science, technology and engineering."

Shaw is not alone in his concern. Two years ago, the National Academy of Engineering published "The Engineer of 2020," which Shaw described as a "wake-up call."

"We need to graduate engineers who offer something more," Shaw said. "We need engineers who can think creatively across many disciplines."

It's something U.S. schools should have been doing long ago, he said.

"Fuel cells are a microcosm of how the current state of engineering fails to understand problems beyond its own expertise," said Shaw, who specializes in the devices. "Fuels cells are a materials problem, they are a chemical problem and an electrical problem. It's very difficult for one person to understand it all. If we had been educating engineers in a more interdisciplinary way, the development of fuel cells may have proceeded more smoothly than it has."

Shaw hopes to educate more creative and interdisciplinary engineers with a portion of his NSF Career award. He plans to create a controls lab where junior-year electrical engineering students can get their hands on problems related to fuel cells, optics and micro-electromechanical devices - all of which require cross-discipline thinking.

"Laboratory work is an important aspect of undergraduate education," Shaw said. "And in this area, it has not been there to date. It is a real hole in our curriculum."

Shaw himself has always relied on laboratory work to help him learn. As a teenager, he brought home discarded equipment from the University of Connecticut's engineering department, tore it apart in his parents' basement and puzzled out how it worked.

As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had a research advisor who gave him a broad range of experiences and great latitude to explore.

"I was in the lab all the time," Shaw said. "It was a wonderful experience. I played around with robotics, gel actuators, theoretical computational problems and circuits. There was a full machine shop and you could find me there on weekends trying to work on mechanical engineering problems."

Since coming to MSU in 2000, Shaw's work on fuel cells has brought him roughly $2 million in research funding. In 2002, he was selected as one of the world's top 100 young innovators in a list compiled by Technology Review, a magazine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2003, the National Academy of Engineering selected him as one of the top young engineers in the country.

A far cry from his parents' basement, he now has four labs of his own with students working in all of them.

"I'd really like to give the same degree of freedom to my students as I had as an undergrad," Shaw said. "I really don't care what they're doing, so long as they are motivated to explore and to think beyond what they already know."

Contact: Steve Shaw, (406) 994-5982 or sshaw@ece.montana.edu.