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Undergraduate Research: Transformative and Fun

Posted on July 18th, 2012

by Jean Florman

Republished with permission from Iowa Engineer

Sean Plenner working in the field in Kansas.

Sean Plenner working in the field in Kansas.

Since spring semester of his sophomore year, Sean Plenner has conducted research in an IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering lab where he designed and built a simple, effective, and relatively inexpensive laser instrument that can measure river sediment deposition and scour patterns with millimeter precision. Along the way, Plenner also co-authored two papers, presented a poster at the 2011 American Geophysical Union (AGU) national conference, and was mentored by the lab director, William D. Ashton Professor of Civil Engineering William Eichinger.

On the first day of Plenner’s sophomore civil engineering practice course, Eichinger briefly discussed his laser research. By the final day in the semester, Plenner was intrigued enough to ask his professor if he needed any help in the lab. Eichinger’s response: “When do you want to start?”

Plenner jumped at the chance to do undergraduate research, and today, the new graduate says working in the lab was transformative and fun. But it wasn’t easy. “For quite a while, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it,” he says. “I wasn’t familiar with the lab equipment and really had no idea how to do research. But Professor Eichinger would rather have you try and fail than just tell you the answer. It was really hard, but he seemed to have confidence in me, so I kept pushing myself.”

“If I’d known the answers, I would have told him,” chuckles Eichinger, who believes students learn to be creative by doing the hard work of problem solving, “The key thing in engineering is to figure out why something doesn’t work as well as we hoped and then improve it. With each iteration of the instrument, we learned to do it better.”

“Sean came up with clever, innovative ways to make the laser instrument faster, lighter, more accurate, and more capable,” Eichinger says. “When coupled with his data analysis software, the instrument is far more capable than anything I had envisioned when we began.”

The “candy-store” nature of the lab also enhanced the experience for a young engineer. “The labs in IIHR have every tool anyone could ever need,” Plenner says, “as well as the people to help me build the equipment. I’ve had a ton of fun working there.”

For his laser mapping instrument, Plenner developed analytic software capable of scanning underwater to create three-dimensional topographic images. IIHR director and Edwin B. Green Chair in Hydraulics Larry Weber and IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste have applied Plenner’s mapping device to study scour effects below a dam and around a bridge pier. Although private companies have built similar devices, Plenner’s instrument is considerably less expensive and more robust. He estimates his two-laser system would cost around $20,000, compared to the least expensive commercial alternative, which costs five times more. Recognizing the cost value of Plenner’s instrument as well as how easily a researcher can set it up, scan a target subject, and process the incoming data, engineers at other institutions have inquired whether it is available for purchase.

Plenner, however, is more interested in continuing his research at Iowa as he begins graduate work toward a master’s degree in the fall. In addition to the academic life, he also is very interested in partnering with communities around the world to help improve water quality and enhance environmental sustainability. He has participated in a three-week winter term course that visited an area in India where over-exploitation of aquifers has resulted in salinization of the soil. During a recent “alternative Spring Break” trip to Costa Rica, he and other UI students built a bus stop and worked to mitigate flooding that frequently washes out a local road.

The range of Plenner’s undergraduate liberal arts courses helped situate his engineering life in a cultural and historical context. He is living proof of the value of an education for “engineering … and something more.”


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