Engineering Professor on Research Sabbatical in Germany

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For Georg Pingen, his sabbatical during this fall semester was an opportunity to go home.

Pingen, originally from Germany, is spending the fall semester doing research at a University in Aachen, Germany — RWTH Aachen. Since most of his time as an associate professor of engineering at Union is spent teaching, the sabbatical is an opportunity for Pingen to devote himself full-time to scholarly projects and research that began during his days as a doctoral student.

The work is technical and complex in nature.

“We try to develop models that help engineers improve their designs so that the engineering design process can be accelerated or enhanced — so that when we’re getting into a new area of engineering, not everything takes us as long as it took us from the Wright Brothers’ first plane to the jet planes that we have today,” Pingen said.

“If we want to build something, let’s say we want to design a small bio-medical sensor, we don’t want to spend 100 years to arrive at a good design,” he explains. “And so coming up with computer models that can help in the design process is the underlying goal of the work that I’m doing.”

The research flowed from Pingen’s doctoral studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  He’s continued working with students and researchers there over the last eight years. Some of the theory they are trying to implement was developed by the applied math department at RWTH Aachen, a prestigious engineering, science and mathematics institution.

Over the years, he has met some of his colleagues from Aachen at different conferences, and Pingen says his time in Germany thus far has been an outstanding opportunity to work with those mathematicians on a day-to-day basis.

“To be honest, we’ve been stuck a little bit with trying to implement the theory that they have developed in Aachen into our computer model,” Pingen says. “And so it has been nice to just get up from my desk, walk over into the next office, and talk to Dr. Torrilhon or one of his graduate students who actually developed the theory.”

Pingen’s research allows him to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the engineering field, but it also gives him an opportunity to include Union students in his work.

“I just exchanged a text message with Gabriel Garneau, who is one of our current seniors in the engineering program,” Pingen says. “He is working on a project with me that’s directly related to the work that I’m doing in Aachen.”

In addition to the professional benefits that Pingen is deriving from his time in Germany, he’s enjoying the personal side of things, too. His wife Betsy and their three sons are with him, and the university in Aachen is only about 30 minutes from Pingen’s parents.

After growing up in Germany, Pingen came to the United States in high school as an exchange student at Jackson Christian School. He met Betsy during his time at JCS and convinced his parents that he needed to go to college where Betsy did. So he followed her to Samford University for his undergraduate work.

The Pingens are looking for a church home in Germany, and although the Christian communities in Germany are smaller than those in the United States, Pingen says there are some vibrant evangelical churches.

He’ll be in Germany until early January and will resume his teaching responsibilities at Union in the spring semester.

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Robotics and Programming Lego Mindstorms Summer Camp

Several departments and athletic teams across campus host camps throughout the summer for local children of all ages. One example is the Robotics and Programming camp that the department of computer science organizes. Jan Wilms, department chair, started the camp seven years ago and modeled it after a camp that the physics department was doing back then. “Our department had purchased Lego Robotics kits for our Intro to Computer Science class, and they were perfect for an outreach program to middle schoolers to get them involved in science and technology,” Wilms said.

Lego Mindstorms programming interface The camp has been going on this week from 1-4pm each day. Camper Jake Lancaster said, “I like Lego camp because it’s very entertaining to program and drive the robots, and it’s fun to meet new friends.” The camp mixes fun and games with challenges like line following, maze traversal and races with the robots. Everything is built on a foundation of engineering principles and programming concepts. Wilms explains, “The kids learn about differential gears and Ackerman steering but also about advanced programming like multithreading and event-driven programming. This is possible because Lego makes available a visual programming language that is very user friendly, and the immediate feedback that the robots provide encourages trial-and-error and hones debugging skills. We even use some trigonometry that the younger ones haven’t learned yet in school, and they don’t seem to mind because it is directly applicable to getting the robot to cover the desired distance.”

Lego Mindstorms robot built at the camp Several of the campers have attended consecutive years as the camp offers something different each summer. There are many different designs available for the robots that are fun for the campers to build and test.

“Our hope is that this will inspire the kids to continue their passion and choose a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field,” says Wilms. We’ve enjoyed having these campers here all week!Camper working on his robot Dr. Wilms troubleshooting with a camper Campers testing their program A camper working on his robot Dr. Wilms troubleshooting a programming issue with a student