Daniel Skelton and David Wilson ABE graduate students Daniel Skelton (left) and David Wilson look to their post-graduation futures with confidence. After his experience with the Basic Utility Vehicle, Wilson hopes to work internationally, while Skelton, a veteran of the quarter-scale tractor contests, leans toward diesel engines. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Mean Machines

Hands-On Learning Gives ABE Grads an Edge
in the Job Market

By Natalie van Hoose

ABE graduate students David Wilson and Daniel Skelton
(Photo by Tom Campbell)

Graduates of Purdue University's top-ranked Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering enter the job market with the creativity of a designer, the savvy of an entrepreneur and the calluses of a grease monkey.

Not all agricultural engineering programs offer the space and training students need to transform their designs from a blueprint to a rumbling, running machine, but at Purdue, it's more than a possibility—it's a priority.

"We want our students to do hands-on testing," says John Lumkes, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "Even if the students are never going to be professional welders or machinists, the chance to build and make mistakes that aren't costing a company millions of dollars is an advantage. It plays a huge role in job prospects."

Second-year graduate research assistant Daniel Skelton says that building what he designs has given him a new perspective on the engineering process. "I started to see a difference between book-smart engineers and those who actually know how to put things together. Now when I design, I think more about how the part will be built."

While an emphasis on construction is a long-standing feature of Purdue's ABE program, the new ADM Agricultural Innovation Center—a 27,000-square-foot building funded in part by Archer Daniels Midland Co.—greatly expanded workspace for student projects. The center, which opened in January 2012, features three large bays, classroom space with computers and writeable walls, new tools and after-hours access.

The center's location on the outskirts of campus also prevents other programs from being disturbed by construction noise or testing prototype machines. "We get into less trouble here," jokes Lumkes.

Nuts and Bolts of Global Business

The ABE program also teaches students how to transition from the workshop to the conference room. Many of their design-build competitions, such as the quarter-scale tractor contest, require students to develop business and presentation skills in addition to building a winning machine.

Purdue's winning pull from the 2012 ASABE Quarter Scale Tractor student design competition. This was the 15th year for the competition.

"Most of your points come from written reports, a design log, cost analysis and oral presentations," says Skelton, who has been a member of the tractor team several times. "You can't just have a well-designed tractor. You have to sell it."

Other student projects, such as the Basic Utility Vehicle, a Purdue-designed, multi-terrain vehicle built for the rough roads of Cameroon, Africa, tackle the global "grand challenges" of energy, food, water and the environment. First-year graduate student David Wilson says working on the BUV pushed him to think more creatively about designing with limited resources.

Over one and a half days, April 20-21, the Purdue Basic Utility Team (BUV) drove the prototype over 60 miles carrying two people, 110 gallons of water, and pumping equipment.

"We have to make the BUV work the best we can without access to top machines and top materials," he says. "It's not necessarily about engineering a new part; it's finding what's available."

Top Honors—Again

The department's innovations and integrated approach are paying off. USNews & World Report rated Purdue's graduate ABE program as the best in its category for the fifth year in a row, and Purdue's undergraduate ABE program has earned a number-one ranking for the third consecutive year. The percentage of ABE graduates who land jobs in their field is close to 100 percent, according to Lumkes.

"ABE is a very diverse field," he says. "Some part of the industry is always doing well. Students can work in a number of areas, including food processing, machine systems, pharmacy, and environmental and natural resources, and we as faculty are proactive about finding jobs that will fit individual students."

"In ABE, you set your own path," says Skelton. "You take the core classes, but you get to choose where you want to end up. I'm not worried about getting a job at all."