Prof. Robin Ott, Virginia Tech
February 6, 2024

Q&A with Professor Robin Ott

Virginia Tech has been a QL+ partner since 2017. Professor Robin Ott, who has taught the Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Capstone class since that time, recently sat down with QL+ for a Q&A about her experiences.

Can you briefly describe some of the projects you've led with QL+?

Some projects the teams I oversaw have worked on include:

  • Creating a wheelchair lift that would help a challenger swap her "outside" wheels for "inside" wheels by herself, thus gaining more independence (and keeping her house much cleaner—she lives in a very rural setting.)  This Challenger is still using the device six years later and has requested to work with VT again multiple times due to the quality work we provide. This project was highlighted in the Roanoke Times.
  • We partnered with the USA Bobsled Federation on several projects related to making it easier for para-athletes to get in and out of monobob sleds during training and competition. Student teams were invited to visit the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center to test the device.
  • One Challenger had a hard time rolling over and sitting up in bed (he is paraplegic). He and his wife did not want an ugly hospital bed in their bedroom. The student team designed side rails for his existing bed that were strong enough to help him but easily hidden from view.
  • One wounded veteran lost her arm in an IED accident. She is an exercise lover and wanted a way to do pushups and planks with one arm without twisting and developing uneven muscle tone. The student team created an awesome device that she and her athletic trainer both approved of that helped support her during these exercises.

How do you believe working on real-world projects for QL+ benefits the academic and personal growth of STEM students?

There is nothing like working on a real-world project when it comes to developing students' engineering skills. Teachers can try to make up projects, but they never have quite the impact as a project with a real customer.

This is true for any outside-sponsored project but rings true more when it is a QL+ project. The customer (QL+ calls them Challengers) isn't a company but a real person and someone who is now injured because of their commitment to protect their country—our country.

Students on the QL+ projects, as I've observed over the last six years, take their projects seriously. They talk to the veteran for about an hour each week that school is in session for two semesters. They get a sense of how drastically the success of their project could impact this person's life for the better. This motivates them in a way that benefits them academically (by putting their engineering skills to use), and I believe it reaches them on a deeper emotional level, one that is harder to teach in traditional classes.  

Are there any specific student success stories or transformations you've observed during or after the completion of a QL+ project?

Neddie Byron is a great example of a student success story. She worked on a QL+ project and is now using her engineering skills and medical interests to pursue a very specific career that spans both specialties. We have other former QL+ students that enjoy coming back and working with first-time QL+ students, as well.

How do the collaborative sessions with the veterans and first responders play out? Can you describe any particularly memorable interactions?

There are so many memorable experiences with the veterans! Just to name a few:

  1. One Challenger we have is not an engineer, but she thinks like one and is always very involved in the weekly student meetings, asking technical questions and making suggestions. She has come to visit campus multiple times on different projects. The students love working with and for her. We laugh a lot in those meetings, and I've kept in touch with her outside of class over the years.
  2. Another Challenger was visited by the student team multiple times to fit a device they were making for his arm/hand. Every time the team visited him, he made them tons of food as a thank-you. It was such a sweet gesture.
  3. Having students visit the Lake Placid Olympic training session many times over the years is definitely an experience worth mentioning. Two students from the first bobsled-related team went on to volunteer at bobsled training camps after they graduated helping with various aspects of the training—that warmed my heart!

What challenges have you or your students faced while working on QL+ projects, and how were they addressed?

There are always challenges on senior design projects, perhaps more so when you have a single customer/Challenger. The most difficult is when the final product doesn't work as planned. This has happened before, and it is frustrating for the students and disappointing for the veterans. The students feel like they've failed the veteran. The best way we can face this is by offering to continue the project for a second year at no charge because we want to provide the veteran with something that really helps them.

How do you ensure the technology being developed is tailored to the unique needs of each veteran or first responder?

Customizing the solutions the students come up with for the particular Challenger isn't that hard. The students are creative and have come up with ways to get the information they need. That has varied from getting a loaner wheelchair from the same manufacturer as the one a veteran uses to getting a mold of a veteran's hand so that the students can work with a plaster version of the hand during design and test. With the weekly team meetings that the veterans attend, some visits between students and veterans, and creative thinking, each device is easily customized to the veteran who requested it.

What has been the most fulfilling aspect of leading projects at QL+ for you?

I love being the faculty advisor for QL+ sponsored senior design teams. First, the mission of QL+ is just great. While it is exciting to work with student teams making a device for a sponsoring company in the defense industry, for example, it doesn't compare at all to working with students to improve the life of a specific person, especially when that person is a veteran. The QL+ project managers assigned to each school are so dedicated and supportive of the students. Overall, it is a very fulfilling experience.

How has your involvement with QL+ influenced or shaped your perspective on teaching and mentoring?

I've definitely seen, through my experience with QL+ student projects, that engineering can't be all about numbers. Engineering decisions do need to be made objectively with data, but there is also a compassionate, empathetic side of humanity that is important for engineers to embrace that can easily be "taught out of us" in engineering school. I feel this has made an impact on how I see, teach, and mentor students.

Can you recall any specific moments or interactions that profoundly moved or inspired you during a project?

Last year, there was a team working for an amazing veteran, and the team was struggling technically. Their mid-year review was close to disastrous, and it seemed clear the students lacked any sort of practical knowledge that would help them design and build the device. I found an additional mentor for the team, and together, we worked with them through winter break to redesign the device.

Throughout the spring semester, the team stepped up and started to learn new skills quickly. One student became a pretty good welder, another learned a lot about electric motors and batteries. Many of them learned to use machines and tools in ways they had never imagined. The once-struggling team ended up creating one of the most successful QL+ project devices ever. Seeing the growth in those students intellectually, emotionally, and as a team was something I'll never forget. Watching them see the veteran use the device in Blacksburg close to graduation was truly incredible. The veteran was thrilled, and the students gained such confidence in themselves.

There may have been tears of joy at some point, but from whom, I'll never tell!

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