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Dr. Xiaopeng Bi: On 10-year anniversary of engineering programs at WSU Everett

by Linh Tran, Senior, WSU Everett Integrated Strategic Communication program

Washington State University North Puget Sound in Everett announced the 10th anniversary of its engineering programs last month. The anniversary is a meaningful milestone for many, including Dr. Xiaopeng Bi, the founding faculty member of the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture at WSU Everett. I spoke with Dr. Bi a few weeks ago, and the following is our conversation, which I’ve edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Dr. Bi has been an EverCoug since the beginning and become the symbol of Voiland College at WSU Everett.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Voiland College at WSU Everett. How do you feel about that?

First of all, I feel so proud. The students are doing great in the industry. I was lucky enough to be one of the founding faculty members of the WSU mechanical engineering program in Everett. So this anniversary is very special to me. At the same time, I feel like, wow, it has been ten years already. We have the vision to become the top engineering program in the nation, and this milestone reminds us of the vision we have been working toward. We absolutely have the potential to do that.

Let’s talk about the decision that day – the decision to establish a bachelor’s degree engineering program in Everett 10 years ago. Why was it necessary?

The North Puget Sound region has a lot of companies in the aerospace and technology industries, and there was a shortage of engineers. It was necessary to have more students who would be qualified to meet that need. The problem, however, was the enrollment limitation at the University of Washington and WSU Pullman. Many students with families or part-time jobs couldn’t afford to live far from home to earn a degree. So the conversation about having a baccalaureate engineering program in Snohomish County was brought up. Finally, in 2012, WSU offered a mechanical engineering degree in Everett.

You taught the very first class of WSU Everett engineering students. What did those early days look like? 

There were many challenges. For the first couple of years, we had to use space at the Everett Community College campus. I remember teaching the course of mechatronics, which required a lab portion. But we didn’t have enough lab space. The students then came up with the “labs-in-the-cart” solution. We purchased all needed supplies, including a cart which we used to move lab equipment in and out of the classroom and storage. The students were incredibly creative in the way they adapted to the situation. Another thing we did was that we took students to Pullman in the summer to finish the labs we couldn’t afford to offer yet. If you go to the first floor, you can see a picture of the first students and me working together in Pullman. We had so much fun together. 

What has been one of your fondest memories of teaching at WSU Everett over the past decade?

So many good memories – and most of them have something to do with the engineering club. It is the first club at WSU Everett, and the students inspired me to start the club. When I proposed the idea to fellow faculty members in Pullman, they hesitated. They believed the students would have no time to join a student club because they were all juniors and seniors who just wanted to have classes and graduate. But my students disagreed. They told me they wanted a fun student life and loved the idea of having an engineering club to go to every week. So in 2014, the engineering club was created. 

Even in the club, the students worked so hard. We went on to compete in the University Rover Challenge in 2016 and won first place in the nation and second place internationally. Students also won second place in the ASEE National Design and Manufacturing Competition and second place in the ISHS Young Minds Award. These accomplishments indicate the quality of our students and their hard work. Today, looking back, I am so glad we started the engineering club. It has been a remarkable success.

Dr. Bi, second left, posed with five of his mechanical engineering students at the national American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) conference in June 2015. They earned second place for a design to harvest electricity from rainwater. (Photo via WSU Insider)

When we are proud of the past, we want to do even better in the future. Looking forward, what do you see in the future for Voiland College at WSU Everett? 

We will further our strengths in certain fields, such as aerospace, manufacturing, clean energy, and robotics. We are doing some exciting work in those fields and will continue to grow our investments through industrial collaborations, course offerings, and club activities. 

Your role in the Voiland College at WSU Everett is significant. This anniversary is to celebrate you and the faculty members who have contributed to STEM education in North Puget Sound. What special thing would you like to see as we are celebrating the anniversary this year?

I want to see my students again. I would love to see them return to campus and share their success stories with our current and future students. That would be a great opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can do for a better future. 

Is there anything I should ask you but didn’t? 

I can talk about Voiland College and WSU Everett all day. It has been a wonderful 10 years, and there are a lot of things to talk about. This interview has brought back many good memories. Feel free to tour the labs and you will find that every piece of equipment has a story behind it and represents our progress throughout the decade. 

Dr. Bi, what you have done for the students and the school is inspiring. On behalf of the students at WSU Everett, I thank you for your devotion. Happy 10th Voiland anniversary to you!