Maria Oden, Rice University Bioengineering Professor


Helping students at Rice University
cook up real-world projects at OEDK

When Maria Oden started at Rice University as a bioengineering professor in 2004, senior students in the capstone class sketched out their engineering projects on paper. Now, freshmen new to the campus develop their ideas in three dimensions, actually building their real-world, applicable projects by hand in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. The Kitchen, one of the first of its kind, is revolutionizing how engineering is taught and what an engineering curriculum includes. 


“People go into engineering because they want to use their love of math and science to solve real-world problems,” said Oden, who is now director of the OEDK and professor of the Global Health Design Challenges capstone class.

In the recently expanded, 17,000-square-foot lab, students get to do that by working on projects brought to them by companies looking for solutions, by Oden or another faculty member — or by their own creativity. Many of the projects address third-world needs or are for NASA, the Houston Arboretum, Houston Zoo or Shriners – a wide range of projects.

The traditional engineering school model requires students to spend their early years studying physics, chemistry, calculus, computer programming and other similar classes where there’s one right answer to a problem before getting into core engineering courses.

“That’s really good for learning techniques – but engineering is so much more,” Oden said. “Often, engineering challenges are open-ended, and the key is making engineering judgments and assumptions to solve the challenge or design the solution.”

The traditional route beats the creativity out of the students, she said. At the OEDK, the new college students can take their youthful enthusiasm and creativity to solve problems.

“By including design early in the curriculum for students who wish to do so, we’re able to show them early on what being an engineer is,” Oden said.

The lab opened in the fall of 2008 through a $2.4 million gift from alumnus and trustee M. Kenneth Oshman and his wife, Barbara, and with a major gift from National Instruments. When Oden started at the university, there was no engineering lab for design, and her bioengineering students had about 18 inches on the top of a desk and one drawer to store their work and supplies in.

Over the next four years, as she continually pressed for more room, Oden and her students moved three times before settling into the OEDK, which was built in a previously little-used storage space. Because Oden had been the one making noise about finding more room, she was asked to oversee it.

Students in the Intro to Engineering Design class and any other engineering design course get first dibs at the tables. Then groups or individuals working on independent projects that came out of a course, student clubs and, last, students working on a completely independent project who have a faculty advisor. The teams that need a table get their own to keep their equipment on – no need to clean it up each day – a keycard and 24-hour access to the lab for as long as their class or project requires, in some cases, years. Having their own space builds a sense of ownership and helps the students form a community, Oden said.

The lab, which was used by 805 students last year, has 61 table spaces, but not all students need a table. Some are working on computational projects. Along the walls, in drawers and on shelves, are bits and bolts and pieces the students can use for their projects. The space is shared by students majoring in bioengineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, civil and environmental engineering, computational and applied mathematics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering and material science and statistics. That means the students work in an interdisciplinary environment – another break from the traditional model.

“The real problems we want to work on don’t involve just one discipline,” Oden said. 
“So, we can’t work in just one discipline if we are to experience the world-world practice.” 

In the center of the lab, now located in two stories, is the National Instruments Design, Prototype and Deploy Lab. The lab space also includes a machine shop, an etching room with a wet lab, glass-walled conference and computational rooms, a 3-D printer, PC milling machine and laser cutter, a plotter, copy room and office spaces. In the computer lab, computers are grouped together in fours, with a big monitor to share work. In September, a new 5,000-square-foot “Kitchen Sink” opened after a capital campaign that netted $1.5 million.

"Within five days of that opening, we had five more teams than we had room for," Oden said.

If the students invent a marketable product for a company, that company keeps the patent and the revenue from the project – although the student(s) is credited as the inventor. If the project is faculty-based and funded with a research grant, Rice owns it. If projects are done in a course, student-conceived and funded through gifts, then the student owns the intellectual property.

In the large meeting room, which can be a classroom or banquet room, the school hosts “around the kitchen table” dinners with professional engineers. At the themed events, students present ideas, network and pick the engineers’ brains. Early indications are that the Kitchen is improving retention among engineering students, Oden said. And, the success of the OEDK has the university discussing expanding the concept of real-world design challenges to many other majors.

“Our job is to reduce barriers for students to accomplish their task,” Oden said. “The Kitchen does that.”

Dave Schafer is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.