Iowa State alumna Daniela Faas has had an enthralling journey that began with a move from Germany to the US as a teen, beginning what she calls her own version of the “American Dream.” That dream has included excellent education and research opportunities that have taken her places she never envisioned, and ultimately landed her a position at one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Far from home
As a high school student in the city of Ludwigshafen, Germany, Faas and her parents decided that a year of schooling in the US would be beneficial to her education in order to prepare her for the Abitur, Germany’s final exams that enable students to attend German universities. Faas’ acceptance to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts launched the beginning of her educational pursuit in the US.
Upon arriving at Worcester, Faas found the cultural differences were hardly noticeable, saying the most difficult thing for her was learning the language. Ambitious to interact with her surroundings, she chose not to bring an English-German dictionary, hoping it would force her to learn from her classmates. “The language barrier in science and math was challenging in the first few weeks, but as soon as I asked my classmates and teachers to explain the concepts, I quickly picked up the material,” says Faas.
She also had to adapt to living independently at a young age, as she lived in a dormitory by herself at Worcester. “The change from always having my parents around to being by myself in a foreign country was definitely a learning curve for me,” Faas explains.
Despite the novelty of her situation, Faas managed to do well in school, making strong impressions along the way. She was offered a scholarship from Worcester to stay and finish her high school education there. Once she accepted the offer, she knew the US was going to be the place she’d call home for years to come since German colleges do not accept American high school diplomas.
In June 2000, Faas graduated from Worcester and moved to Pennsylvania to attend Bucknell University in the fall. It was there that she received a double degree in mechanical engineering and international relations in 2005. Following her undergraduate studies, she completed her master’s in mechanical engineering in August 2006 also at Bucknell University.
Always searching for new and challenging opportunities, Faas began considering places to pursue a PhD. Her main focus was finding somewhere that offered her a variety of resources and would give her invaluable experience. After assessing schools against her criteria, she moved again, this time to Iowa State.
Faas received a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and human-computer interaction from Iowa State in May 2010. As she reflected on her time here, she says she the opportunity to conduct important research and gain notable insight and experience in teaching provided her with much more than a degree.
Beneficial to her interests in design, Iowa State is a leader in virtual reality research and home to the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC), where Faas completed research in computer-aided design (CAD) models.
Her dissertation, “A Hybrid Method of Haptic Feedback to Support Virtual Product Assembly,” involved many hours of research in the virtual reality labs. The project combined her knowledge of CAD with haptics, which are the application of devices, such as joysticks, that allow a user to feel feedback through his or her hands.
“The key research challenge was to allow users to assemble complex, low clearance CAD parts as they exist digitally without the need to create expensive physical prototypes,” explains Faas. “To do this, we had to develop the data structure and logic needed to switch between collision detection and constraint recognition while maintaining a haptic refresh rate of 1,000 hertz.”
The results of her research were used in an engineering framework for assembly simulation, training, and maintenance. Faas says that seeing her research applied in the industry makes her very grateful for the tools she had available to her. “VRAC is truly unlike any other lab in the world. The support and passion for virtual reality is unrivaled there, and I am thankful for the learning opportunities I was presented with,” explains Faas.
While conducting research, she also gained experience as an instructor. Fully responsible for course development and all aspects of instruction, Faas taught Engineering Graphics and Introductory Design (ENGR 170). Her class, which consisted of an average of 38 students, incorporated a robotic design activity inspired by a course at MIT. “I took a lot away from my experience teaching ENGR 170, but mainly it helped me find my own teaching style that I still use today,” Faas says.
Taking with her an established philosophy for teaching and considerable experience in research, Faas began a position as a postdoctoral associate in mechanical engineering at MIT, where her main focus is on teaching. She has been a lab instructor for Measurement and Instrumentation (2.671), but her most exciting appointment has been teaching MIT’s infamous course Design and Manufacturing I (2.007), the course Faas used as a resource for the Iowa State class she proudly developed. 2.007 is known for its robotic design project and attracts large numbers of people for a final competition that occasionally airs on national TV.
Faas was assigned to teach two sections of the course with 16 students in each section and is responsible for the inventory of the design materials found in approximately 180 boxes given to students for their projects. At the end of the course, a final competition for all the sections is held. Faas had eight students competing this last spring semester. “The competition itself is very exciting,” explains Faas. “The stands are packed, and it is quite a production to make it all happen.”
This year’s final competition consisted of each finalist maneuvering his or her robot through a scaled-down version of MIT’s campus to complete a variety of tasks in the fastest time. The tasks were inspired by pranks of MIT’s past, including moving rival Caltech’s cannon, inflating a balloon on Harvard’s football field, and placing a police car on the Great Dome.
Faas is excited that she will be teaching 2.007 again this coming spring semester and that she also will be continuing to conduct research at MIT. She is investigating presence and immersive tendencies during early stage design at MIT’s International Design Center (IDC), which is the research portion of The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). SUTD is a new university established in collaboration with MIT, offering Faas the opportunity to take part in new, unique endeavors.
Although content with her work at MIT, Faas says she is looking for a permanent faculty position, and hopes to teach engineering design at a smaller university. While it is unknown where the next part of her journey will take her, Faas does know that the experiences she had in the US have prepared her to handle just about anything that would come her way. “There is a lot to be said for the learning and research opportunities I have had,” she says. “They were rewarding, and they will allow me to follow my plans to help others in their own journies.”