My students have to see themselves as part of a team, and function as such, in order to succeed.

M. Laura Beninati

With degrees in architectural, civil and mechanical engineering and years of experience working in industry, Professor of mechanical engineering Laura Beninati says she has a wider lens with which to see her students. "I take a very student-centered approach," she explains. "If they're struggling in one area, I have other ways to reach them."

Beninati's area of expertise is marine renewable energy. She and her students are working on ways to design and improve underwater turbines, which when rotated by currents and harnessed to generators, have the potential to create an impressive amount of green energy. 

But as the turbines spin, they also move debris and sediment so Beninati and her team are also studying the lasting impact the turbines will have on the environment. In order to do this, they've created a small-scale model of a hydrokinetic turbine in an open channel flume housed in the engineering labs. "It's an amazing experimental facility," Beninati says. "4' wide, 32' long and 15" deep, it contains a 4" diameter miniature turbine and has a laser Doppler velocimeter to measure flow velocity."

Beninati states that there's nothing like hands-on, real-world projects to get students excited and motivated. This year, her senior design group will be doing in-kind work for Bellefonte, Pa., a local community that's in the process of going green. The town features a large spring and Beninati's students have been challenged to harness its energy. Beninati says she likes to have her students take on projects like this because the outcome is unknown. As she points out, that's life in the real world. But she also says solving the problem means doing good for a real community.

Because of her experience in industry, Beninati has many contacts in professional government laboratories and has paved the way for many of her students to secure impressive internships. "Working in industry with projects for real bosses is one of the most important educational experiences an undergraduate can have," she says. "It helps students learn what they like and what they don't like. And, of course, when things go well, it's a foot in the door." 

Beninati also insists that her students present their papers at national conferences. "What we are studying is truly in its infancy," she says. "This is the frontier." She says engineering has become group oriented where support and feedback has never been more important. "My students have to see themselves as part of a team, and function as such, in order to succeed," she says. 

Posted October 3, 2013