Plan T: Bringing it All Back to the Classroom
Plan T: Bringing it All Back to the Classroom
Engineering Science Professor Jack Leifer explains how his various interests intersect
By Susie P. Gonzalez
Jack Leifer, associate professor of engineering science at Trinity University, was gratified at his first meeting of the Brooks Development Authority board when he reviewed a spread sheet of bids by five firms competing for a $70,000 job contract. While looking at scores in such categories as "experience," "local," and "minority-owned," it hit him - the grid looked familiar.
"I thought, 'This decision matrix is exactly what we teach in Sophomore Design to evaluate various design solutions,'" Leifer said, adding that he removed confidential details from the document before sharing it with his afternoon class. "I wanted them to see first-hand that what we teach is used in the 'real world.' The class had the same questions as the Brooks board that was making a $70,000 decision. The students noticed the subjectivity of the decision matrix and questioned the assignment of points and weighting of the various categories." In the end, the students learned that even subjective techniques must be supported by rational, critical thinking, Leifer said.
Such intersections of the practical with the academic are not uncommon in Leifer's world. A mechanical engineer, he has consulted with attorneys in more than 150 cases, estimating the impact force in low-damage car collisions based on analysis of photographs and application of basic engineering principles. Leifer said it is never possible to diagnose an injury by looking at a damaged automobile bumper, nor is it possible to directly correlate visible damage to force. He often explains these concepts to jury members who might not have even taken algebra. But such ideas relating force, energy, and deformation are the fundamentals of Engineering Mechanics, another course Leifer teaches. "Typically, I illustrate these topics with some real-life examples from my court cases," he said.
His students also are benefitting from a partnership Leifer launched with Goodwill Industries of San Antonio several years ago to adapt equipment for Goodwill workers to perform their jobs more easily. In 2008, one group of students placed third in a national design competition for a device that adapted a lawn mower for hands-only operation. The Goodwill projects show students that many workers face barriers to employment. "In the end, students see many of their prototypes put to productive use by Goodwill."
For the past five summers, Leifer also has mentored research students, providing opportunities for them to gain one-on-one experience and knowledge about using multi-camera videogrammetry to track human motion and reducing transmitted vibration of weed whackers, a project that emerged from the Goodwill collaboration.
In between all this, he is a baritone with Conspirare, an Austin-based Grammy® nominated choral group. In a whimsical nod to the Moody Engineering Building that houses engineering science, Leifer also leads "The Moody Blues," an a capella ensemble of engineering science students who sing at various department events.
"I do a lot of different things," Leifer said. "But it all relates back to the classroom and my teaching. I like to show students how the basic concepts they are learning can be applied to seemingly complex real-world problems."
He is one of 11 members - and one of two academics - named to the board that oversees redevelopment of Brooks City Base, and said his engineering expertise has been helpful in making decisions approving the thickness of road pavement and drainage, for example. Leifer is quick to say he doesn't want to "rubber stamp" any recommendations and notes that his board service underscores his predilection for finding flaws in arguments through critical thinking.
"Much of what is presented to me resembles a puzzle to be solved for the benefit of society," Leifer said. "With Brooks, I can offer a fresh pair of eyes, and I can ask, 'Is the argument airtight?' We are trying to make sure scarce dollars are spent responsibly." Such contributions are yet another way he can share his background of an educator's logic and deep thinking with a broader audience.
A tutor in high school, Leifer said he was "bitten" by the research and teaching bugs as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both parents were educators, so "I stepped into the family business," he quipped, adding that he tries to be a creative thinker when encountering an obstacle. "Don't be afraid to make a mistake," he said. "Take the risk, but always have a Plan B. Right now, though, I only have a Plan T - a Plan Trinity."
- Sophomore Design
- Engineering Mechanics
- Mechanics of Materials
- Structural Dynamics
Selected Publications and Presentations
- Three-Dimensional Acceleration Measurement using Videogrammetry Tracking Data, Experimental Mechanics, 2011 (with three Trinity undergraduates)
- Measurement and Passive Reduction of Vibration Transmission in String Trimmers, Proceedings of the International Modal Analysis Conference, 2011 (with two Trinity undergraduates)
- Fighting Photos with Photos: Using Exemplars from the National Automotive Sampling System (NASS) to Mitigate the Effect of Low Damage Impact Case Photos, Texas Trial Lawyers Association CLE Seminar Notes, 2011
© 2011 Trinity University