Chair's message

Jason Rife

Dear ME Community,

Greetings from Tufts.  I’m willing to bet that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has had an impact on your life in the past year. This is certainly true for us in the Mechanical Engineering department. The rapid emergence of Large Language Models and other generative AI tools is impacting students and faculty in many ways, mostly for the better. 

It seems that AI tools cannot yet reliably solve engineering problem sets. That said, AI tools can be curiously effective in drafting new problem sets and lab exercises. This capability opens up interesting possibilities for engineering education. For instance, Assistant Teaching Professor Erica Kemmerling is exploring how AI tools can be used to create customized problems or experiments for individual students. For several years, she has worked to demonstrate the benefits of student-specific questions in motivating students to learn thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and heat transfer. AI tools promise to accelerate the process and may create more opportunities to produce customized homework problems that enhance learning.

Mechanical engineers are also harnessing AI for their research. Professor Igor Sokolov has been busy using machine learning to analyze pictures of cells that he generates with an atomic force microscope.  This approach probes the mechanical properties across the cell’s surface in a way that can reliably distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells. Understanding the user-interface for AI tools has also been a focus for Professor of the Practice James Intriligator, who is evaluating methods for queuing AI (aka “prompt engineering”) in order to help users obtain better results and to help engineers identify weaknesses that nefarious parties might exploit to circumvent AI guardrails. AI is also becoming a primary research tool for robotics, with wide use in the robotics research of Professor Jason Rife, John R. Beaver Professor in Mechanical Engineering Chris Rogers, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor Elaine Short, and Assistant Professor Jivko Sinapov.

Students continue to find new uses for AI in their daily lives. When looking for jobs, for instance, some students are engaging in conversations with AI to prepare for potential interview questions. Other students are using AI to generate graphics (sometimes a bit surreal) that enhance the visual quality of their project presentations. 

Some things stay the same. Mechanical Engineering students still learn about mathematics, statistics, dynamics, materials, manufacturing, design, and fabrication. What is changing is how students engage with that technical material, in part due to the new availability of powerful AI tools. It is the job of the faculty in the Tufts University Mechanical Engineering department to continue to adapt with technology and with our students, to help them harness the new opportunities that AI will create. Read on to learn more about innovative research in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and department highlights from the past year.

Best wishes,

Jason Rife

Jason Rife
Professor & Chair
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Tufts University