March 08, 2021 | Matt Kucinski

The Toyota logo with frost on it.
Photo Courtesy: Chandler Cruttenden

“People have been studying this for years,” said Rich DeJong, professor emeritus of engineering at Calvin University. “And we’ve figured it out.”

The “it” he is referring to is how to reduce the wind noise in an automobile when traveling at highway speeds. The “we” is a team of faculty and student researchers.

Together, their discovery has led to a patent for Toyota Motors Company.

“It’s very unusual for undergraduates to be involved in this research in the first place,” said DeJong, “let alone be part of a patent.”

Access to Expertise, Equipment, Industry

DeJong’s experience in the automotive and aerospace industry has served students well over the years. In fact, it was through his connections that Calvin University gained access to a unique piece of equipment used in this research: a wind tunnel, which DeJong says is one of only about a dozen of its kind in the country.

“We have one of the quietest wind tunnels in the country. The wind tunnels that do noise tests are uniquely designed,” said DeJong. “All of the machinery being used cannot make a significant amount of noise, so that you are only hearing the noise generated by the air flow.”

Beyond the cutting-edge equipment, it’s the industry connections that are bringing projects like this to Calvin’s campus. One of DeJong’s former students in the 1990’s, Todd Remtema, now works in Toyota Motor Company’s research center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s been sending research projects Calvin’s way for years, and when he needed someone to find a solution for this specific problem, he asked Calvin to take a shot.

Undergrads take the driver’s seat

Students, like Kurtis DeVries, a 2019 graduate of Calvin University who now works as an acoustics transducer engineer for SeaLandAire Technologies, was in the right place, at the right time.

“I was just looking for an internship at the time, and my friends said I should talk to Professor DeJong,” said DeVries. “To know we are partnering with Toyota, to get to work with a big name company, that’s exciting.”

DeVries worked on the project for two summers. He helped build test sections for the wind tunnel, ran tests in the tunnel, and scanned and gathered data for analysis.

After his second summer of research, he was able to turn over the wheel.

Seeing the finish line

“You could see it going places,” said DeVries. “You could see the excitement.”

Abby Willson, a 2020 graduate who is currently pursuing a masters degree in acoustics at Penn State University, was given the keys.

“My junior year of college is when I decided to pursue vibrations and acoustics because I like physics and music and engineering and that is a field that combines all of those together,” said Willson.

Like DeVries, she would have quite the testing ground to lean into this passion. Willson’s role on the Toyota project would be two-fold: she did field testing on the Toyota project, setting up microphones for the testing, and then she was involved in the post-experiment data processing and analysis.

“If I had to take a stab at it, I think Abby’s work really pushed it over the line to make Toyota convinced they wanted it,” said DeVries.

“Our students' names may not be on the patent,” said DeJong, “but the work they did validated the methodology, it showed the patent office that it works, and therefore it is patentable.”

“It’s a big team effort, all of us are doing internet research, hardware research, building equipment, and testing to understand how to get it done,” said Ren Tubergen, professor of engineering at Calvin.

A graduate-level experience

It’s this approach to research, where undergraduates have access to every aspect of it, that DeJong says is most clearly seen as unique when his students present at regional and national conferences.

“I’d put our students up against any students. I have students giving papers at conferences, and we have people coming up to us consistently saying ‘I didn’t know you had a graduate engineering program at Calvin,’ said DeJong, “and, I answer, I don’t, these are undergraduates doing graduate-level work under the supervision of a PhD and doing cutting-edge research.”

Both Willson and DeVries agree their undergraduate research experience prepared them well for what they are doing now.

“It helped me get into this program at Penn State,” said Willson, “a lot of my profs here were glad I had the experience in a project. It prepared me well for what I’m doing now.”

“I did a lot of hands-on stuff at Calvin, and here (at SeaLandAire Technologies) I’m doing a lot of hands-on work as well, building test equipment, testing equipment, and I work in acoustics,” said DeVries, “and I was working in vibrations and acoustics for Professor DeJong for two years, so I had a solid base of knowledge and was not completely green when I came in.”

It’s personal

While the breadth and depth of experience is equipping students well to pursue their passions, both the faculty experts and the student researchers highlight the relationships formed as their greatest value.

“I’m the guy who in a 20-person classroom typically sits in the back row and I’m not going to ask a lot of questions,” said DeVries. “But, when I actually know someone, I’m more likely to sit down and ask questions, have longer conversations. I noticed the dividends my senior year, when I was able to sit down and have lots of conversations with Professor Tubergen about life and engineering, and I’ve had several conversations after Calvin with my professors as well.”

“Professor DeJong and Tubergen were very helpful in helping make sure I understood everything as I went along. They were always there if I needed any help, and I enjoyed working with them every day,” said Willson. “I have had really good relationships with my professors, the small student-to-faculty ratio really helps with that, I was always able to talk to someone not even just about homework. If I needed to talk about anything, they were always there.”

When the lights turn on

For professors, whether it is in the classroom or in the research lab, they know their number one priority is teaching. And professor after professor says taking students through the process of learning and seeing the lights go on still far outweighs the joy of a major discovery.

“Most of us aren’t going to get patents, and that’s not where our reward comes from. It comes from taking students from position A to B, what do our students need to know, what have they not experienced, what insights can they gain,” said DeJong. “I want my students to come away feeling a sense of awe at the beauty of creation that’s hidden, that they can uncover, that they can work with. They ought to come away in awe of this creation, and amazed that they have the privilege of working with it.”

“The best thing about research is we’re now teaching to a classroom of one, and the relationship is so much tighter when teaching to a classroom of one,” said Tubergen. “It allows us unfortunately and fortunately to see the lows in the educational process, frustration when things don’t work out right away, but by continuing you can help them get through those things.”

“And students see us differently too. Things are well prepared in the classroom, but when they are working with us in research they see another side of us … they see us doing the profession,” said DeJong.

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