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Steve Ryder ’01 of Pitman, N.J., a graduate of Pitman H.S., is immersed in a distinctive engineering research project at Lafayette this summer.

Ryder is working with Laura Ruhala, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to design a car frame for a vehicle that he and other Lafayette engineering students are building to compete in the annual Mini Baja off-road competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

In the Mini Baja program, students function as a team to design, build, test, promote, and race a vehicle. They are also responsible for generating financial support for their project and managing their educational priorities. Ryder’s work promises to help the team compete in the race and may provide valuable insight for building safer automobile frames.

“Engineers design for the success of their products,” explains Ruhala. “However, in some instances, a ‘controlled failure’ of the product is its ultimate success. For instance, a soda can is designed to be a very strong little pressure vessel, but it is also designed to be opened by the consumer in a controlled manner. This ‘failure’ is deemed a success if the liquid inside the vessel is obtained in a way that does not injure the consumer or contaminate the liquid.

“Another example of design for ultimate failure is an automotive frame,” she continues. “While designed for strength, stiffness, and stability, it is also designed to fail in a described manner. For example, engineers must ensure that the crumpling of the frame associated with an impact does not intrude into the passenger compartment, which could easily cause lower-leg injury.”

Ryder, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, began the project this summer by doing background reading and attending a week-long class in San Francisco to learn an advanced computer software program developed by Livermore Software Technology Corporation. The program is the automotive industry standard for simulating crashes.

“It’s really powerful software,” says Ryder. “What I’m doing this summer is becoming more familiar with it and modeling some basic shapes. When I get into the school year and start working on the actual frame, I’ll be able to simulate crash tests for it and make it safer for occupants before the frame gets built. With this software, you can see the metal crumpling and how things actually work when they smash into a wall without doing it in real life. It’s a really neat use of computer technology.”

“I try to convey my genuine interest in the students as individuals,” says Ruhala, who has experience as a project engineer with General Motors’ North American Truck Platform and AC Rochester Division. “I want to learn about their experiences, goals, and aspirations and help them in whatever ways I can.” She joined the Lafayette faculty last fall after completing a Ph.D. in engineering science and mathematics at Penn State University.

Another goal of the research project is to build a small prototype and crash it into a wall, using high-speed photography to compare the results with those predicted by the computer model.

“The car frame will definitely stand up to the conditions of the race,” Ryder explains. “This project is taking things one step further, because, at least here at Lafayette, nobody has done research on the crash-worthiness of the frames.”

Ryder is a Marquis Scholar. Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars receive special financial aid and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded study-abroad course during January’s interim session between regular semesters. Marquis Scholars also participate in cultural activities in major cities and on campus and in mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty.

In January Ryder traveled halfway around the world to take a distinctive course called Inside the People’s Republic of China, taught by Kim D. Bennett, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Paul Barclay, assistant professor of history. The students gained insight into practices and characteristics of distinct Chinese subcultures by traveling to Bejing in the north, Kunming in the southwest, and Guangzhou on the southeast coast. They met with government officials and business people, attended arts performances, and visited a factory, hospital, and university.

This spring Ryder studied the mixing of very viscous liquids as an EXCEL Scholar working with Erol Ulucakli, associate professor of mechanical engineering.


He plays drums in the Lafayette Pep Band and has served as computer-system manager for the college newspaper, The Lafayette. His sister, Carrie Ryder, graduated from Lafayette in May with a bachelor of science degree in geology with departmental honors. His father, Henry Ryder, is a 1967 Lafayette graduate.

Categorized in: Academic News