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Teachable Moments

Rustin Webster
By Rustin Webster, PhD Associate Professor, School of Engineering Technology, Purdue University, SME Member Since 2003

Since My Junior Year in college at Murray State University, I knew that I wanted to be a professor. Luckily, I had a mentor who provided me with a road map that made it happen.

But before that dream came to fruition, I worked for an aerospace and engineering company as a mechanical engineer for nearly 10 years. I designed various solutions for multiple branches of the armed forces, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I may not have been directly operating the machines that manufactured my products, but my work required a high degree of manufacturing knowledge.

Hands-on experiences are an important part of Rustin Webster’s (far right) teaching curriculum at Purdue University.
Hands-on experiences are an important part of Rustin Webster’s (far right) teaching curriculum at Purdue University.

My experiences throughout my career in the field, as an educator and working with industry partners such as SME, have given me great insight that I’d like to share with students and other teachers.  

At Purdue University, I have taught 14 different courses in eight years, and many are associated with the manufacturing industry. My introductory courses in polymers, manufacturing processes, and production design and specifications are my favorites.

Educators can have a significant impact on the manufacturing industry through their students by equipping them with the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to thrive in modern manufacturing environments. Educators play a crucial role in shaping the future of the manufacturing industry by preparing students to meet the industry’s evolving needs. By equipping students with a strong educational foundation, technical skills, soft/professional skills and a forward-thinking mindset, educators can have a lasting and positive impact on both individual students and the manufacturing sector as a whole.

Pro Tips

One of the teaching methods that I’ve found works best is hands-on learning. Manufacturing is inherently practical, so hands-on learning is essential. Set up laboratory sessions or workshops where students can apply theoretical knowledge to real-world manufacturing scenarios. Allow them to operate machinery and practice manufacturing processes under supervision.

Project-based learning (PBL) is also effective. Assign projects that simulate real manufacturing challenges. PBL encourages students to work collaboratively, solve problems and apply their knowledge to design, build or optimize products or processes. It promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Invite manufacturing professionals to speak to your students. They can provide valuable insights into industry trends, career paths and practical experiences. It also helps students make connections with potential employers.

Use multimedia, interactive demonstrations and multimedia resources to illustrate manufacturing concepts. Videos, animations and 3D models can make complex topics more accessible.

Encourage collaboration among students through group projects or problem-solving activities. Manufacturing often involves teamwork, and collaborative learning helps students develop communication and teamwork skills.

Organize field trips to manufacturing facilities or invite students to visit local industries. Observing real-world manufacturing processes can be eye-opening and enhance students’ understanding of the field.

Tools for Success 

SME has rewarded me twice with the Distinguished Faculty Advisor Award, which has significantly supported me and my students. Both times the monetary award was used for club activities, such as social events, tours, guest speakers, workshops and maker events.

Keeping teaching materials and methods current and relevant in the rapidly evolving manufacturing industry requires a proactive and adaptive approach. Strategies I use are continuous professional development, industry partnerships, curriculum reviews, guest speakers, professional organizations, industry visits, student feedback and various technology tools.

To prepare students for successful manufacturing careers, our goal is to make them proficient in various manufacturing processes—such as machining, welding, CNC programming, 3D printing and quality control. They should also be knowledgeable about CAD/CAM software and manufacturing automation systems, as well as understand materials science and properties to select appropriate materials for manufacturing processes.

Students also must have the ability to analyze complex manufacturing problems, identify root causes and develop effective solutions. This includes critical thinking skills to optimize processes, reduce waste and improve efficiency in manufacturing operations.

Other attributes we try to instill are:

Effective communication, both written and verbal, to convey technical information and collaborate with colleagues, supervisors and clients.

Collaboration skills to work effectively in cross-functional teams within manufacturing facilities.

Respect for diverse perspectives and the ability to resolve conflicts constructively.

Project management skills to plan, execute and oversee manufacturing projects efficiently and within budget.

Opportunities and Challenges

I offer my students advice across a wide range of important topics. This includes understanding that manufacturing is a broad field encompassing various sectors, including aerospace, automotive, electronics, food production and more. Students should explore the different niches to identify their specific interests.

Hands-on experience, meanwhile, is invaluable for understanding real-world processes and building your resume. This can be accomplished through internships, co-op opportunities or part-time jobs in manufacturing settings.

Stay informed about industry trends and the latest advances in manufacturing technologies, such as automation, robotics, Industry 4.0 and sustainable manufacturing practices. Read industry publications, follow manufacturing news, and engage with online communities and forums to stay informed.

Develop professional skills—cultivate important soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, adaptability and leadership. These skills are essential for success in the workplace. Consider joining clubs or organizations at your educational institution to further develop your teamwork and leadership abilities.

Embrace continuous learning—understand that learning doesn’t end with your formal education. Manufacturing is a dynamic field, so commit to continuous learning and professional development throughout your career. Consider pursuing advanced degrees, certifications or specialized training as your career progresses.

Seek guidance and mentoring—don’t hesitate to seek guidance from professors, industry professionals or career counselors. They can provide insights, advice and mentorship to help you make informed decisions.

Show initiative and perseverance; manufacturing can be challenging, but perseverance pays off. Be proactive, take initiative, and be open to learning from your mistakes and experiences.

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