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DOE funding expands UT power electronics graduate program

written by Knoxville News Sentinel.
Submitted on Wednesday March 30th, 2016.

Dr. Madhu Chinthavali works on a wide bandgap characterization testbed at ORNL

Cell phone and laptop chargers, electric cars, medical devices: improvement and development of these and other devices are all done by engineers in power electronics.

A new $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is helping the University of Tennessee encourage more students to go to graduate school in that discipline with a new graduate traineeship.

UT faculty members are developing the courses and other details, as well as recruiting students for the program, which is expected to start in fall 2016.

The funding allows UT to bring in 30 additional graduate students in power electronics over five years, and Daniel Costinett, an assistant professor at UT, said all graduate students in power electronics will benefit and be able to take the new courses.

The traineeship will also increase research and internship opportunities, as well as fund new technology and devices for students to use in their research, he said.

Costinett said the grant helps address a shortage of U.S. citizens in power electronics graduate programs. He said students are lured away from graduate programs by high-paying jobs and thinking they don't want to be in the classroom anymore.

But graduate school is different because it focuses more on research and design, he said.

In academia, graduate students can look into the future and design devices that might be products in 10 years, Costinett said. He noted that's different from industry, where they would be working on products that would be on the market much sooner.

So that ability to work on future, cutting-edge devices makes graduate school exciting to some students, Costinett said.

But he said the challenge is to share that appeal with undergraduates, who need roughly three years of the basics before they can dive into power electronics courses.

Costinett and other faculty have started to talk to undergraduates about the new traineeship so they know what they could expect. Costinett also has several undergraduates in his laboratory to help them get a taste of the projects they could do in graduate school.

It's not like a typical class where there is a single right answer to the problem, he said. Costinett said working in research means working through problems where there is no one right answer.

Maeve Lawniczak, a UT senior who works with Costinett in the research lab, said she started working on research in the summer and it's helped her understand the equipment and concepts in her classes.

She said she likes the hands-on experience of research.

"I'm definitely going to graduate school," she said.

The DOE awarded grants to two universities, UT and Virginia Tech, to develop this type of program for a total of nearly $6 million in funding.