College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Schaefer documents Biden visit

Joseph Schaefer
Joseph Schaefer

Visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Iowa State University March 1, 2012
by Joseph Schaefer, senior lecturer of aerospace engineering

When I walked into Howe Hall on Monday, February 27, 2012, everything seemed normal until I went to Room 0620 across the hall from my office that was the home for the Strength of Materials Laboratory I teach until August. I knew the new President of Iowa State University would be making his first trip to the College of Engineering including a tour of the facilities in our department on Wednesday, and I also knew that a group of officials from Boeing would make a similar tour during their two-day visit on Thursday and Friday. I also knew that Room 0620, now named the “Make to Innovate Laboratory” (M2I), would contain displays for those two tours, but when I stepped into the laboratory to get water for the coffee pot in my office I was surprised to see that the lab was nearly empty. Everything that was in the laboratory on Friday was gone, and I wondered how and why that had happened over the weekend.

About an hour after I returned from my 10 a.m. class, our department chair came to my office and told me I would have to reschedule four sections of the strength of materials class on Thursday, but he could not tell me why until later in the day. Obviously, that announcement really aroused my curiosity. Several hours later he told me that the two rooms into which the Strength of Materials Laboratory had moved in August as a result of a grant I had received last May that allowed us to purchase computer-driven, state-of-the-art equipment that replaced six large, older pieces of equipment would be used on Thursday for the workspace for Vice President Joe Biden who would come to Iowa State University to give a speech about renewing manufacturing in this country. The other room would be used for the Vice President’s staff.

As he told me what would happen on Thursday, the activity level in Howe Hall increased tremendously. By late Monday afternoon officials from the Secret Service and organizers from the White House set up operations ten feet from my office. The amount of preparation that is necessary to host the Vice President of the United States is amazing, most of it dictated by the Secret Service. In addition to a general cleanup, objects in the Atrium of Howe Hall where the event would be held had to be moved to make room for the 500 spectators who were expected to attend. This activity continued all day Tuesday as the barriers that are used at the football stadium for crowd control were brought into the building.

Early Wednesday morning a semi-trailer loaded with the stage, the official podium, the stand for the press, sound equipment, and a large supply of black curtains arrived. A very professional crew began setting up the stage, sound equipment, etc. Some Iowa State staff members were hanging banners around the Atrium while at the dictum of the Secret Service the others were taping brown paper to all the windows on the south side of the building as a safety measure. That seemed to me to be an extreme requirement until I thought about how often Americans have shot our leaders. It is a reality that we have to deal with in this country these days. It really has nothing to do with Joe Biden; it has more to do with who we are as country.

The extra pressure of the visit by the Vice President of the United States made the show that the Department of Aerospace Engineering prepared for the President of Iowa State University even grander than it normally would be. The researchers in our wind tunnel laboratories had the model of the area around Tuscaloosa, Alabama set up in the Tornado Simulator for research on the effect of terrain on the path and effects of a tornado. The two rapid prototyping machines used in our department to produce models for research and one from the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory were moved to Room 0620 Howe Hall. Some state of the art teaching and manufacturing equipment was also moved to showcase it for the Wednesday and Thursday tours. When the last lab section on Wednesday was completed we moved all the equipment from the room that the Vice President would use as his headquarters on Thursday. The White House staff and Secret Service personnel connected many telephones in the labs.

Wednesday afternoon the Secret Service told us that beginning at 7 a.m. on Thursday only authorized people would be allowed to enter the building prior to the arrival of audience beginning at 9 a.m. for the Vice President’s talk scheduled for 11:30 a.m. We also learned that only one entrance would be used, and attendees would have to pass through airport-type screening equipment. A tent was set up on the south side of the building into which the car carrying the Vice President would drive with a canopy connected to the entrance to the building.

On Thursday morning, I had an 8 a.m. meeting in Hoover Hall, which is connected to Howe Hall by a skywalk. As I expected, the skywalk was closed at 7 a.m. The meeting had been scheduled weeks ago for members of the planning committee for the proposed new Student Innovation Center to meet with the architects developing the scope and plans for the building. This project is near and dear to my heart because it is a major scale-up of a proposal a colleague and I have been pushing for six years. I left the meeting at 10:30 a.m. to go to Howe Hall for the Vice President’s talk. When I crossed Bissell Street between the two buildings and saw the line at the door of Howe Hall I wondered if I had stayed at the meeting too long. Fortunately, as I stood in the line a student volunteer walked along the line and asked if everyone in the line had a ticket. When I showed her my ticket she said, “Oh, you have a VIP ticket, you can go to the door on the left and go right in.” I was able to get through the screening process quite quickly after I explained that there was a piece of titanium in my left knee as a result of knee replacement surgery last December. I found a good seat that happened to be next to one of my former students and advisee at Loras College who is originally from Dubuque, Ron Cox. Ron received his BS and PhD degrees in aerospace engineering at Iowa State University. He is now an associate dean and the head of the Center for Industrial Research and Service at Iowa State University.

The speaker system was blaring out music that obviously had been chosen in anticipation of having a great number of students in the audience. I did not recognize any of the songs, but a student told me one of the songs was performed by Sugarland. The only thing I know about that group is the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair last August.

Joe Schaefer with Vice President Biden.
Joe Schaefer with Vice President Biden.

As is typical for every such event I have attended, it did not start on time. I told Ron Cox that we should watch the black curtains that were suspended between my office and the entrance to Room 0620 where Vice President Biden was being shown the equipment demonstrating current efforts at Iowa State University in teaching about state-of-the-art manufacturing. I said that when we saw members of the press come through the curtains and head to their platform we would know that the Vice President would soon appear. At noon, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack led Vice President Biden to the stage. They stood in front of a large blue and white banner that proclaimed “An America Built to Last.”

John Solomon, a senior majoring in materials engineering—the home department of Danny Shechtman, the 2011 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry—introduced Secretary Vilsack. After he graduates in May, John will begin a job with Caterpillar, where he served on an internship. He began his introduction by praising Iowa State University for how the education he received had prepared him for his position at Caterpillar.

Tom Vilsack introduced Vice President Biden by citing many contributions of Iowa State University to agriculture and manufacturing in Iowa and in the nation. He also stated that he believed that the Iowa State Cyclones men’s basketball team deserved an invitation to the NCAA tournament. He cited interests that Vice President Biden has in agriculture and in Iowa.

Vice President Biden began his talk by endorsing Tom Vilsack’s suggestion that Iowa State should get an invitation to participate in March Madness. He said that he would cheer for the Cyclones unless they played Syracuse University, where he received his law degree.

He thanked Iowa State University for the tour he had just been on. He also mentioned Thomas Naert, a senior in Agriculture Engineering, who was in my fluid mechanics course several semesters ago. Tom had demonstrated his senior design project done in conjunction with the Ag Leader Technology Company of Ames that improves the flow of fluid in agricultural sprayers through manufacturing, which in turn minimizes the amount of chemicals used on corps while insuring that the proper amount is distributed in the right places. Mr. Biden said Ag Leader believes these improvements could reduce the amount of fertilizer of pesticide a farmer wastes by 70 percent.

The thrust of Mr. Biden’s talk concerned the importance of improving manufacturing technology in this country. He pointed out that one in six American jobs depends on our manufacturing base. He said that over the last two decades the industrial heartland has heard too much about outsourcing. He predicted that advances such as those being developed in manufacturing at Iowa State University would change the topic to “insourcing” as other countries look to the U.S. for new manufacturing technology. He said that countries such as China are not as well positioned to lead the new developments in technology because in many of those countries people are not allowed to challenge the orthodoxy—political, economic, even scientific orthodoxy. He praised Iowa State for understanding that change comes only through challenge because no one knows where the next great idea will originate. He cited predictions in the 70’s that Japan would be the dominant economy in the world. Then in the 80’s and early 90’s we heard about how the Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan were going to overwhelm our economic position, but that did not happen. He predicted that current beliefs that China will dominate the world also will not happen.

He cited research at Iowa State University on biorenewable fuels and research in our department on wind turbines. He pointed out that he received his undergraduate education at the University of Delaware, which like Iowa State University, is a land-grant university. He said the current “idea factories” of America are research universities like Iowa State University that have connections to cutting edge private businesses and government lab with frequent exchanges from researchers and students across all fields of education. He said he witnessed firsthand while touring our labs the type of cross pollination that leads to new inventions that will foster whole new industries—from renewable energy to better seed technology for farmers. He said the Obama administration is committed to supporting research developing innovative manufacturing techniques. He pointed out that the administration was criticized for supporting the auto industry, but now General Motors is number one in the world.

After his half-hour talk, Vice President Biden took a microphone and walked into the crowd of 500 people and took questions on any topic. He offered direct and thorough answers to a wide variety of questions. A graduate student in materials engineering asked about continued support for NASA. Mr. Biden pointed out that the administration would continue to support the mission of NASA, but there would be a shift from emphasis on manned space travel to research.

Another questioner asked him whether the comments that President Obama made in a commencement address at Notre Dame University regarding conscience was in contradiction to the recent decisions regarding funding of contraception in the Affordable Health Care Plan. His answer was an abrupt “no.” He elaborated on how entities such as Catholic Colleges and Hospitals would not have to pay for such things that are contrary to their beliefs, but the employees would receive coverage because the insurance companies would pay for the coverage. He said that the insurance companies are willing to do that because it is cheaper for them.

A special education teacher from Nevada, Iowa, asked about No Child Left Behind and the problems it introduced with unfunded mandates and emphasis on testing. Mr. Biden provided a detailed list of changes that the administration plans to bring to education.

A graduate student in materials science asked about providing aid to Darfur. Mr. Biden provided a wide-ranging answer in which he discussed the dangerous situations that have made distribution of the aid that the U.S. has provided difficult. Secretary Vilsack added a description of efforts that the U.S. has made in Darfur and other similar problem spots and the difficulties that exist, and he insisted that this country will continue to try to help these countries. He stated that a major problem is loss of grain because of poor storage facilities, and he said that the U.S. is trying to develop solutions for this problem.

A chemical engineering major said she had spent a semester in China and wondered why the U.S. was not using biofuels in airplanes. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary Vilsack pointed out that the U.S. Navy had recently placed a large order for biofuels and that some airlines have begun testing biofuels.

Mr. Biden seemed to enjoy the exchange with audience members during the question session, even though few of the questions pertained to the topic of his talk. He engaged in banter with the questioners before offering a deliberate and thorough answer to each question, e.g. when one questioner said that her major was athletic training, he jokingly told her that if she had been around when he was playing football at the University of Delaware and if all the training and fitness development techniques now used had been available then he could have been a star.

The question and answer period continued for half an hour. As the crowd dispersed, Mr. Biden walked along the barriers and greeted some of the dignitaries in the front row. I managed to work my way up to the front row, where I talked to Secretary Vilsack about Doug O’Brien, a Loras College graduate from Cascade who is the Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I managed to get next to Vice President Biden just as he was answering a question from a freshman student in aerospace engineering about the competition from China. Mr. Biden went into a discourse about the changing wage structure in China, the disparity in wages and benefits in different regions of China, and he made predictions for the future about the sustainability of the current economic system in China. It was obvious he had a thorough understanding of the Chinese economy. When he finished that discussion I introduced myself and told him that he was using my laboratory as his office. When he thanked me for letting him use the space, I asked him if he would pose for a picture with me. I attempted to hand my camera to a student who was beside me, and the Vice President grabbed my camera, handed it to a member of his staff, and told him to take a picture of the two of us.

This person to person interchange between the Vice President and the people who had come to hear his talk continued for half an hour at which time his staff insisted that he was already late for a scheduled press conference, so he thanked us for coming and for the opportunity to visit Iowa State University. We had to leave the area during the press conference. It was quite an exciting event for which everything went smoothly.

For more about Vice President Biden’s visit, read the dean’s blog, and see how students responded to his message.