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Making a Material Difference

Materials scientist Desiderio Kovar has helped engineering students get back something they had lost — the essential act of tinkering

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When Desiderio Kovar joined UT’s faculty in 1997, there was a crisis in the teaching of mechanical engineering no one could quite put their finger on. Students, by every quantitative measure, such as SAT scores, were brighter than ever, yet they were struggling with concepts in a way students never had before. Veteran professors suddenly found it much harder to get through to students.  

Kovar was assigned to a group formed to study the disconnect. “It actually didn’t take very long to figure out what the problem was,” he recalls. “We looked around the room at everyday objects and started talking about how we became engineers, and it was tinkering. You develop this intuition from tinkering you cannot replicate easily without it,” he says. 

“People were talking about taking apart their Volkswagen Bugs and putting them back together.” But by the late ’90s, because of computerization and other trends that concealed machines’ workings, “you could open the hood of your car and really not learn anything.” 

Likewise, Kovar says his generation could take a rotary phone apart and see how the bells rang, but with mobile phones there was little to learn by looking inside. “We went from many generations that had developed an intuition through tinkering to a generation that was very proficient on the Xbox. It’s not the students’ fault,” he’s quick to add. “If you keep opening the hood and you’re not able to do anything, eventually you stop opening the hood.” 

The realization that students were coming to engineering without having really tinkered led to an effort spearheaded by Phil Schmidt (now professor emeritus) called Project PROCEED, which stood for PROject CEntered EDucation. Kovar was an enthusiastic early participant. Lab classes and theory classes had “wandered apart,” he says, and PROCEED worked reasonably well to bring them together and get students more hands-on experience. But because the project had no home and no dedicated staff, it had reached its limit. 

In 2014, Kovar successfully persuaded Dean Sharon Wood to solve those two problems by establishing the Longhorn Maker Studio. But the proposed site of the studio — a basement room in the Engineering Teaching Center — was dark, dank and didn’t even have electricity. For 30 years, it had served as a storage area for the machine shop. What’s more, it was filled with 30 tons of scrap metal that had to be hauled off. 

Undaunted, in early June of 2014, Kovar told the electricians that the department wanted the studio to open in August. “You’re crazy,” they replied. “Do you know how long it takes to get this stuff done?” Kovar told them about the project and how he was trying to create it for students to do hands-on work. “It was amazing how well that worked! They understood that and made it happen, and we opened right at the end of August.”

“Tinkering” these days doesn’t mean deconstructing a rotary phone. “We started with two 3D printers and one laser cutter,” he says. “Pretty soon, there was a line out the door, and I was back in the dean’s office asking for more equipment.” 

It continued to grow, and Kovar stepped down in 2016 so the school could hire a full-time director, Scott Evans. Now renamed Texas Inventionworks, the studio has moved to the spacious new Engineering Education and Research Center and occupies 16 rooms on two floors. It now has some 60 3D printers, CNC milling tools, and many other tools to fabricate and assemble materials, electronics, sensors and robotics. It’s open to all engineering students and faculty members and is available for multidisciplinary projects across campus. 

Kovar says the lessons learned in scaling up Texas Inventionworks is something the whole campus will benefit from as hands-on learning becomes more of a defining part of a UT education.  

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This year, Kovar was inducted into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, in large measure for these behind-the-scenes efforts. “There’s a lot of stuff that gets done behind the scenes that — particularly 10 years after you’ve done it — students don’t know has ever been improved. I’m a good teacher, but we have a lot of great teachers. I think this is a recognition of what I’ve done behind the scenes that really improved the student experience.”

Another of his long-term efforts has involved working out kinks in the engineering curriculum. For many years, about half of all mechanical engineering students changed majors or otherwise dropped out, many due to the math requirements. In collaboration with math faculty members, he led an effort to take the whole curriculum apart and put it back together to ensure that math was being rolled out to engineers in a progressive, logical way without gaps. Drop-out rates fell, and graduation rates and time-to-graduation have improved commensurately. 

Kovar grew up in the Los Angeles area, where his parents ran two Hallmark stores. The youngest of three children, he followed his older brother into engineering. Kovar attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he started doing research after his sophomore year. This put him on a path to materials science, and a master’s and Ph.D. in the field from Carnegie Mellon University followed. 

“In engineering, oftentimes the keystone issues revolve around materials. My colleague John Goodenough just won the Nobel Prize, and if you look at his specialty, rechargeable batteries, yeah, there are other engineering challenges, but without the right materials, nothing else really matters.” 

Kovar’s work focuses on “additive manufacturing,” better known as 3D printing. At present, the list of materials that can be used in 3D printing — whether metals, polymers or ceramics — is relatively short. “We’re still 3D printing the same materials we were in the 1980s,” he says. “A lot of my work is trying to expand the list of materials by examining both the materials and the processes.” In particular, he is researching ceramics, which are especially wear-resistant and so might be used to manufacture ball-and-socket hip replacements. Being able to customize them precisely through 3D printing is one advantage. Another is ceramics’ inert quality, which makes the body less likely to attack the implant as a foreign substance.

Additive manufacturing of a ceramic hip replacement could hardly be called “tinkering,” but it is all part of a continuum. “When I was in preschool,” he remembers, “another student and I sneaked behind a desk, took the jack off the phone, and basically took all the wires out before we got caught,” he laughs. “We were just trying to see how it worked. Somebody should have known pretty early I was going to be an engineer.” 

 

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