M. Robinson Swift
Excellence in Teaching
Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Ocean Engineering
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Right: Rob Swift at the engineering tank in the Jere E. Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory.
Six miles off the New Hampshire coastline in the Gulf of Maine, an 84–ton feed buoy rises and falls with the swells of the Atlantic Ocean. It is attached to a grid of underwater cages holding tens of thousands of fish being raised by the UNH Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center.
The last thing anybody wants is for this system to fail in an onslaught of 30–foot waves. And this is where M. Robinson "Rob" Swift comes in. A UNH professor of mechanical and ocean engineering, Swift was one of a large group of researchers, biologists, and graduate students to design this elaborate feeder, dubbed Aquamanna.
One miscalculation in the mooring design, one unplanned–for rogue wave, and as much as 20 tons of pelleted fish food could be lost to the sea. And so, too, could the promising future of open–ocean aquaculture.
"Engineering is serious business," says Swift. "In the end, an engineer is responsible for designing machines and structures that are strong enough to function as expected."
Swift's continuing work on this project and others enables him to connect classroom and cutting–edge science and engineering into his teaching in courses such as Ocean Waves and Tides–I and Dynamics of Moored Systems.
"I think that students need to see how their efforts in the classroom and field will apply to the world beyond the UNH campus," Swift explains, "so I try to cite examples from my research and integrate demonstrations into lectures and coursework whenever I can."
Over the years, Swift's message to his students has been that engineering is not only about calculating stresses and testing prototypes, but also about serving the public good.
Over his 30 years at UNH, Swift and his students have worked to this end: studying non–point source pollution, compliant ocean structures, and oil spill response engineering, among other areas. "We designed devices for capturing spilled oil in fast currents," he recalls, noting that four oil terminals populate the waters of the nearby Piscataqua River, where tidal currents can regularly reach four knots. "We actually had a flume set up in the ocean engineering building where we could do real oil experiments and watch the process of slick deformation."
Swift transitions smoothly between the topics of solid and fluid mechanics—a flexibility that helps him convey to students his wide–ranging expertise and enthusiasm.
He is equally at home in a lecture hall holding a large group of sophomore mechanical engineering majors in a course such as Strength of Materials, or in a small advanced graduate seminar for ocean engineering students, such as Ocean Waves and Tides–II.
Swift says that engineers need a unique "vision," and he helps them find such vision by looking beyond the surface of a structure to its physical "heart," using props and real components so they can see, touch, and test for themselves.
This hands–on teaching style is especially important for beginning engineering students who, avers Swift, often come to class focused on memorizing the "final formula" needed to solve a homework problem or answer an exam question. "Their ability to take a calculation and combine it with well–designed experiments will be what sets them apart in the workplace," he says.
"Engineers must know the critical areas of the design, understand what their calculations mean, and determine not only if a design will be safe, but how safe it will be. To do this they have to look past what is obvious to see what is happening within the machine or structure itself."