Mechanical Engineering Department Hosts Guest Lecture on Mission-Oriented Exploratory Research

Dr. Stuart W. Churchill

The Department of Mechanical Engineering welcomed Dr. Stuart W. Churchill, Carl V.S. Patterson Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, for a special lecture on “The Characteristics and Benefits of Exploratory Research” on Friday, March 11. Dr. Churchill discussed the benefits of the engineering community moving away from definitions of research in science as “basic” or “applied” in favor of “mission-oriented” and “exploratory” instead.

According to Dr. Churchill, “basic” scientific research enjoys a higher class reputation among funding agencies than engineering research, which is widely considered to be an “applied” science. Therefore, in order to secure research funding successfully, engineering researchers often find themselves in a position to disguise their true research intentions in order to fit within the rubric of “engineering science.” Dr. Churchill suggested that re-defining research as “mission-oriented” and “exploratory” would provide a better description of engineering research, especially considering most discoveries and advances arise from their combination.

In his lecture, which was attended by approximately 45 students and faculty members, Dr. Churchill characterized mission-oriented research as being aimed at achieving a specific outcome for industry or government funders. Mission-oriented research is therefore more likely to be funded, is attractive to students because it offers a chance to contribute to society, and is often the starting point for exploratory research. Drawing on his own research, which has centered on combustion (and at times fluid mechanics, reaction kinetics, and heat transfer), Dr. Churchill explained that research he conducted in consulting for industry over the course of his nearly 70-year career opened up problems he never would have thought of on his own.

On the other hand, exploratory research, according to Dr. Churchill, is a source of identification of most, if not all experimental anomalies. This type of research may involve more risk, but it often produces rewards and is the source of most engineering discoveries, even if it sometimes requires setting aside the original mission-oriented research objective. The identification of anomalies leads to the interplay of numeric/theoretical research with experimental, confirmatory research. It can also lead in directions that contradict established thinking. For example, Dr. Churchill’s work using numerical computing and experimental confirmation with thermoacoustic convection in a confined medium created a pressure wave and changed the accepted view of certain wave theory dating back to Lord Rayleigh’s groundbreaking work in this area in the early 1900s. Dr. Churchill’s wave theory experiments ultimately led to important discoveries for NASA.