WSUV engineering professor wants take program to next level

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Did you know?

• Hakan Gurocak is director of the School of Engineering and Computer Sciences at Washington State University Vancouver, and an associate professor. He joined the campus in 1997. He won a $367,000 grant from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in 1999 to start WSUV’s automation laboratory and a $240,500 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in 2005 to further its development.

If you’re a Washington State University Vancouver engineering student into automation and robotics, Hakan Gurocak is your man.

Now, two National Science Foundation grants worth a quarter million dollars should help the instructor shift WSUV’s burgeoning mechatronics program into higher gear and introduce more young Vancouver students to its cutting-edge work.

Gurocak recently won a $142,000 NSF grant to develop integrated curriculum for middle- and high school students, using industrial motion control technology and active learning.

The plan is to build a state-of-the-art motion control laboratory at WSUV’s Engineering and Life Sciences Building and to partner with Vancouver Public Schools and local industries.

The lab would welcome school students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs for hands-on visits that feature mechatronics — the high-tech marriage of mechanics and electronics.

Gurocak also will craft a teaching plan that reaches even further into middle schools.

He wants to expand current work of the Southwest Washington chapter of Math, Engineering and Science Achievement, or MESA, created to foster career interest among under-represented student groups such as girls, ethnic minorities and non-native English speakers.

“(It would) bring some of this material to younger children and show them the importance of math and science, in general,” he said. “We’ll demonstrate how it’s used and, actually, is all around them.”

‘Smart’ fluid

Gurocak’s ground-floor labs on the Salmon Creek campus already offer plenty of thrills.

He’s got industrial tools, robotic arms and virtual reality gloves that provide a tactile feel for digital simulations, the latter part of the emerging touch-sensation technology called “haptics.”

This is where Gurocak’s second, two-year NSF grant of $120,000, also awarded this month, comes in.

On paper, the grant funds his proposal for a “New Magnetorheological Actuator with Embedded Hall-Effect Sensor for Hysteresis Elimination.”

Yikes — but, what that really means is pretty darned cool: Improving the braking action of special “smart” fluid, the viscosity of which can be changed, on a dime, from slick, motor-oil consistency to a sticky peanut-butter state “and anything between,” with use of a small magnetic pull, Gurocak explains.

The nearly magical magnetorheological fluid (“MR” for short) contains very small iron particles that line up and solidify the goop with just the right little jolt of electrical current.

MR fluids are already in use: In weight-resistant exercise equipment, such as Nautilus-brand and other types of fitness apparatus; in the suspension system of high-end luxury automobiles and race cars; and in the gloves of virtual reality equipment, some of which can be found in Gurocak’s lab.

Other uses include prosthetic devices and gaming equipment.

With the NSF dollars to pay for graduate student assistant work and new equipment, Gurocak plans to improve technique and methodology to better refine precise movements.

For example, he’s got a prototype robotic arm that someday could help oral surgeons drill into jawbones, where accuracy is critical.

Just as important is designing new virtual equipment to better test new products under design, speeding their development while saving money.

“You can create variable resistance,” Gurocak explained. Using haptic tools, he said, “we can lock your fingers and give you the feeling of grabbing a real object, even though it doesn’t exist.”

The technology has been around for a while, “but there are some issues,” he said. The NSF grant will support his work on a new approach intent on solving those glitches.

High-tech catalyst?

If successful, he might add to new patent applications already spun off from WSUV’s rapidly evolving motion-control hub. It’s a niche he and others believe can help drive Southwest Washington’s high-tech industry to new heights.

Momentum should build with next summer’s opening of the $43.5 million Engineering and Computer Sciences building, which will include a “clean room” among its several labs, Gurocak noted. That building will become home to WSUV’s recently launched electrical engineering degree program.

It’s a long ways from when Gurocak, 45, arrived on the branch campus in 1997, in just its second year at Salmon Creek.

A native of Turkey, he earned his doctorate at WSU’s main Pullman campus and was the first full-time engineering professor hired at WSUV.

That first year, there only were two engineering instructors and six students. There now are more than 300 engineering students and should be 20 professors when the new facility opens.

“When you’re talking about the growth on this campus, it’s been quite phenomenal,” Gurocak said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.