5-minute read

Building a better car with next-generation engineers

Collaborative work helping Midlam-Mohler discover mobility solutions
Engineering sustainable mobility solutions

Shawn Midlam-Mohler was born to build things, to design and create. It’s a skill he’s been honing since he was a kid building Lego sets.

When he arrived at Ohio State as a master’s student in 1999, he wanted to put those engineering skills toward something environmentally responsible. He found the perfect spot with Ohio State’s EcoCAR Mobility Challenge team. Along the way, he also discovered a love for mentoring.

In the years since, as Midlam-Mohler ascended from student to research staff to professor to director, his devotion to creating a healthier environment through his vehicle mobility designs while fueling the next generation of engineers has only intensified.

“I truly love what I do, and I love the impact I’m making on students,” says Midlam-Mohler, a professor of practice in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, director of Ohio State’s Simulation Innovation and Modeling Center (SIMCenter) and EcoCAR faculty advisor.

“With EcoCAR, for example, I’m not out to build the best car. I’m out to build the best students who will likely build a very good car. But even if we don’t succeed in the competition, I can still build the best students who will go out and make a big impact in the industry when they graduate.”

Building the best students

EcoCAR challenges 11 teams of undergraduate and graduate students to apply advanced propulsion systems, as well as connected and automated vehicle technology, to improve the energy efficiency, safety and consumer appeal of a Chevrolet Blazer. The nationwide competition is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, General Motors and MathWorks.

Under Midlam-Mohler’s guidance, Ohio State’s EcoCAR team is often the one to beat, winning six of the last seven challenges and rarely finishing outside the top three.

Students like Kristina Kuwabara, who graduated with bachelor’s (2019) and master’s degrees (2020) in mechanical engineering, have been instrumental in Ohio State’s success. Kuwabara is now a battery electronics development engineer at GM. During her six years with EcoCAR, she rose up the ranks to leadership positions while gaining a large array of technical, engineering design and interpersonal skills.  

“EcoCAR is a huge reason I am the person I am today,” says Kuwabara, who earned EcoCAR’s national Women in STEM Award. “You gain the mentality of being extremely hands-on, problem-solving and getting to a solution. That’s the mentality I have every day in my job, and that’s really what Ohio State and EcoCAR teaches you.”

Ohio State researcher Shawn Midlam Mohler speaks with students. (Logan Wallace)

One of the biggest improvements during her six years with EcoCAR were her presentation skills. She said the first time she had to give a presentation, she was “terrified” and wanted to walk away. However, she worked through the problem with Midlam-Mohler.

That was on full display her senior year as an undergraduate during an EcoCAR competition presentation, when Kuwabara and a fellow female teammate – now an engineer at Caterpillar Inc. – delivered the highly technical controls presentation to a group of mostly male, veteran evaluators.

Kuwabara says it was a highly technical and stressful presentation. Midlam-Mohler said they absolutely nailed it.

“We picked our best two to deliver the presentation, and I swear they went through 70 slides in 20 minutes,” Midlam-Mohler says. “You could see everyone’s brains melting while they presented.”

Kuwabara said the atmosphere of mentorship and inclusion within Ohio State’s EcoCAR team was critical to her development.

“There was a lot of mentorship within the program, and that’s a huge reason I know what I do,” Kuwabara says. “Not only that, but having females in leadership positions, having women at the table, I always felt listened to and that I could use my voice. That’s one of the foundations of what makes Ohio State’s EcoCAR program great.”

Ohio State’s team has won numerous diversity awards given out by EcoCAR, not only for the representatives on the team but for outreach efforts in the university and Columbus communities.

It’s also a diverse team in terms of disciplines, with an array of engineering backgrounds along with team members from business and communications.

“This program ignites an entrepreneurial group of students operating inside the university with access to all the great stuff at CAR (the Center for Automotive Research) and it lets them innovate,” Midlam-Mohler says. “It’s a class, a research project, a hobby, it’s just … a business.”

'I can't imagine being able to do this anywhere else'

Along with his work as a mentor, Midlam-Mohler breaks ground with his own research, using computer-aided modeling and simulation to innovate new design methods for industry and government partners, allowing him to improve everything from “engine valves to heart valves.”

The vast majority of those projects focus on improving energy efficiency and cleaning up emissions, mostly within the auto industry. As the director of the SIMCenter and a researcher with the Center for Automotive Research, he’s heavily engaged in advanced automotive systems, autonomous vehicles and electrification of vehicles and systems modeling.

One of his main industry partners is Honda Development and Manufacturing of America (HDMA), which helped launch the center in 2013. Allen Sheldon, chief engineer at HDMA, says that as director of SIMCenter, Midlam-Mohler has led a center that continually provides critical benefits to Honda as an industry partner.

“These key collaborations have included the development of new CAE (computer-aided engineering) methods, training of the next generation of modeling and simulation engineers and the professional development of current Honda engineers in the area of virtual product development,” Sheldon says.

“Shawn’s research has proven extremely relevant to our industry needs. His work has provided direct output to enhance our product development efficiencies through researching and prototyping new virtual methods for powertrain modeling and controls.”

Midlam-Mohler said much of his work, as an engineer and a mentor, is entwined with the resources and land-grant mission of Ohio State.

“You think of what a land grant mission is and what we do is exactly that,” he says. “I can’t imagine being able to do all this anywhere else but Ohio State.”

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