When Ron Miles struggled to get his hands on a realistic mock-up of a working hearing aid, he knew who could deliver it: an undergraduate working in his lab.
Miles, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and associate dean for research at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, is working with colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Bristol, in England, to develop tiny microphones that can help hearing-aid users better distinguish voices in a crowded room or on a busy city street. But getting hearing aids for research is difficult. “We wanted a hearing aid to put our microphone in,” Miles says, “but companies can’t give us their detailed proprietary designs.”
So Miles turned to Jeremy Ecock ’11, a mechanical engineering student with experience using computer-aided engineering (CAE) software. Using a photograph of a hearing aid and their CAE skills, Ecock and fellow student Matthew Smith developed a three-dimensional digital representation that was, in turn, sent to a machine shop to create a life-size prototype made of plastic resin. “It looks just like a hearing aid, but can hold our microphone,” Miles says.
“To see a physical object being made from your drawings — nothing was more satisfying than that,” Ecock says.
The success was made sweeter by the fact that Ecock found the CAE software difficult when he started learning it in mechanical engineering Associate Professor Roy McGrann’s class. “When I first started, I hated it. I wasn’t good at it,” he says.
“I always hear how students struggle and work hard in his class,” Miles says of McGrann, “but in the end they find it educational and enabling. But if Roy weren’t here, we couldn’t do this.”
Miles means that literally: He prefers to not work with CAE software, so he relies on undergraduates and graduate assistants for most of his CAE and computer-aided design (CAD) needs. “Having undergraduates who do [CAE] work has greatly benefited my work. What we are doing is very challenging, and having students who have the ability to design and fabricate small plastic parts has made those challenges easier.”
Ecock has been working with Miles on his hearing-aid project for two years. As a junior, he worked to design a laser mount to help Miles develop directional microphones. It involved securing a live mosquito and using lasers to measure the response when its antennae are exposed to sound.
Ecock, working with Smith and fellow mechanical engineering student Jared Klein, designed an auditory probe using Miles’ directional microphone. The device measures differences in sound-wave pressure to distinguish between direct and reflected sounds. A probe like this could make it easier for doctors to detect hearing problems in children for early diagnosis and treatment.
For their efforts, the team received a MacDonald Family Prize for Excellence in Senior Design in spring 2011.
Ecock’s experience in undergraduate research is not unique. Students throughout the University are encouraged to participate in research programs, and Binghamton has made increasing opportunities for undergraduate research a priority.
Last year the University received a $1.4 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to fund undergraduate interdisciplinary research in the life sciences. This fall it opened the new Computer-Aided Engineering Instructional Laboratory, in which engineering students can use the most powerful CAE and CAD software available. Some of it is part of a $25.9 million gift from the Siemens GO PLM Partnership Program, the largest in-kind donation in University history.
McGrann says the opportunities to hone CAE and CAD skills, as a result of the gift, will give students a competitive advantage when it comes time to look for jobs. “This is state-of-the art equipment — students could build an entire airplane, designing everything from the engines and fuselage to the wires that run the electrical systems and the bolts that hold it together.”
“It’s much more realistic in terms of what I expect graduates will encounter in the global workplace environment,” he says.
Ecock also is optimistic. Now in his fifth year as a mechanical engineering student in the 4+1 BS engineering + MBA program, his work on the hearing aid has piqued his interest in acoustics and bioengineering. “This is a very difficult time to get a job, even for engineers,” he says, “but knowing CAE and having these experiences in Professor Miles’ laboratory will be beneficial. Hopefully, this will put me on someone’s list.”