UC Davis and Hyundai Motor Corp. on Tuesday turned the ignition on the first-ever corporate-funded center on campus.
The world’s fourth-largest automaker will send eight of its engineers at a time to learn and carry out research, much like graduate students, support student research and give students a chance to rub elbows with professionals.
The company has made a three-year commitment to the project, dubbed the Hyundai Center of Excellence in Vehicle Dynamic Systems and Control.
“The goal is twofold: to operate an academic-training program and conduct research projects designed to make Hyundai vehicles safer, better-handling and more fun to drive,” said Enrique Lavernia, dean of the College of Engineering, at a ribbon-cutting inside Bainer Hall.
Hyundai will spend $940,000 on the center in its first year, including the renovation of office space and a conference room.
The first group of company engineers arrived in January. They’ll be on campus until October.
“I would like to say that this is only the beginning, and that the Hyundai-Kia Motor Company will provide continued support to make this center as successful as possible and to leave a very solid milestone for great partnership between industry and academia,” said Woong-chul Yang, vice chairman of the company’s research and development division.
“I believe that this center will not only train our engineers, but spur the excitement and passion of engineering students at UC Davis by giving them exposure to industry.”
Yang earned his doctorate from UCD in 1986. Returning to Davis is “really emotional,” he said.
“I’m so proud and excited to have this event at the place I got my Ph.D. under the guidance of professor Dean Karnopp and professor Don Margolis, who made me who I am now,” Yang said.
Karnopp and Margolis, both professors emeritus, will co-direct the center. Assistant professor Jae Wan Park and Zac Sabato will act as associate directors.
The presence of the company engineers is a boon to the department of mechanical space engineering, which is home to 32 full-time faculty, 150 graduate students and 350 undergraduates.
Said Lavernia: “I cannot over-stress the significance of such industry involvement with higher education, which grants our students and faculty real-world engagement, helps our graduates become better employees, fast-tracks laboratory research to commercial production and ensures that our academic curriculum more precisely serves the needs of the economy and society.”
Hyundai builds hybrid, fuel cell and electric cars, so as problems emerge with new technology, faculty and students will be able to work alongside the company’s engineers to solve them.
The college’s Institute for Transportation Studies works with a who’s who of major auto manufacturers on sustainable transportation issues, but the number of engineers Hyundai has sent to campus is something new.
Its engineers also will be able to get to know engineers from other companies on the “neutral ground” of the campus, Lavernia said.
“There’s a recognition (on the part of industry) that there’s a big need for engineering students and faculty and staff. I think companies are starting to realize that they need to come to the universities,” he said.
The college is currently in talks with an aerospace company about a similar initiative.
Such arrangements also should be a plus for student recruitment. “They see the name, they see the space and they want to work in it,” Lavernia said.
Not that the College of Engineering is sorely in need of help in that regard: This year, it attracted about 11,000 applications for 720 freshman slots and 1,500 for 175 transfer slots.
The campus plans to add 5,000 students by 2020. Because engineering students make up about 16 percent of students, the college likely will make up a similar proportion of new faculty hires, Lavernia said.
A bigger task ahead will be remodeling and adding buildings and other infrastructure, for which state funding has dried up. That’s where corporate partners like Hyundai are likely to play an increasing role, he said.
“That’s the greatest challenge for us and for the campus,” Lavernia said.
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden