Mix engineering and computer science students in a room with shared spaces and open offices and cool kinds of collaboration, discussion and innovation can happen, which is exactly what FirePoint Innovations Center executive director Peter Perna wants.
Most days, a visitor to the FirePoint will find as many as six Wichita State students working with Perna to help serve as a “super-connecter” between the Army and universities, small businesses, industry and other government organizations. FirePoint is Wichita State's partnership with the Army's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering (AMRDEC).
“The information that I might research from day-to-day could be anywhere from learning about composites and manufacturing to artificial intelligence and computer visioning,” said Jared Goering, a junior in Wichita State's Master of Innovation Design program. “You get to see a lot of different areas you might be interested in diving deeper on.”
At Wichita State, that means researching and analyzing two areas - the next generation of medium-sized helicopters and the next generation of tactical unmanned aerosystems. The Army, Perna says, is working with outside groups to maintain a technological edge over countries such as China and Russia, an edge that has lessened over the years.
“The Army gives us specific technology areas they want us to work on,” Perna said. “Typically, it involves either market research or technical research that the students help us do. The market research might involve identifying potential collaborators, identifying potential technologies, analyzing technologies that the Army might be interested in that align with the technical areas that the Army is asking us to focus on.”
FirePoint, funded by the Army, opened in October and moved to its new home in P2 (Partnership 2) from the Experiential Engineering Building this summer on the Innovation Campus. The new offices are a bright and open home for FirePoint's students and their applied learning efforts.
“We'll ask them a question – who are the major industry and government players in artificial intelligence, as an example,” Perna said. “Once we understand the landscape, then we can, perhaps, identify, either individuals or organizations that we might want to bring in to collaborate with the Army.”
Freshman Michael Hamlin, a computer science major, is a new addition. In his few days at FirePoint, he worked with senior Kevin Wilhelm on 3D printing research, a new experience for Hamlin. Wilhelm, a mechanical engineering major, is collaborating on computer projects that are outside his usual area.
“I'm thrilled by how much variety I'm getting,” Hamlin said. “It's a great work environment. You can be working on one topic and then you move over and assist a person with a very different topic.”
Senior Aaron White served eight years in the Army National Guard. He majors in mechanical engineering and appreciates the variety of topics he works on at FirePoint. Sophomore Kenji Chan is researching requirements to upgrade from single-core processors to multi-core processors.
“It's good to get an engineering understanding of the space that we're studying, see what technology is out there, different opportunities, different fields I could go into and really prepare for me the future,” White said. “The focus is really broad in terms of disciplines. For the engineering field, there's a little bit for everybody."
The collision of ideas, expertise and viewpoints aren't limited to work topics and the environment is also meant to spark different discussions.
Some of the Wichita State students who play Internet detective on behalf of Army at FirePoint prefer coffee. Others argue for tea – too much caffeine in coffee.
They debate the best form of social media.
“Some of us like Snapchat best,” said sophomore Spencer Lueckenotto. “Some of us prefer Facebook. I'm on the Snapchat side. It's an easier interface to operate with. Snapchat, all your stories are right there.”
They do agree on the cool factor of Lueckenotto's hobby – electric longboards (a longer skateboard with a slightly more stylish shape). He built the 40-inch longboard himself, equipped with a motor, hand-held remote and homemade battery and he cruises around campus at what he estimates is an average speed of 10-15 mph.
“I park off campus, so I ride that from my car to class every morning and to work,” he said. “People are very interested when they first see it. They're intrigued by the fact you can stand on a board and go places.”
Chan is one of those intrigued by Lueckenotto's custom-built board, enough so he is buying parts to upgrade his longboard. He also uses his to get to and from his parking spot to work and class.
“I have a vanilla longboard,” Chan said. “He's willing to help me build it from scratch. I'm buying parts as I go along – it's a long project.”