Dance + Civil Engineering = Senior Andrew Niedbala

From his hometown of Sterling Heights, Michigan, to Hope, to Australia, to France, and then back to Holland, Michigan, Andrew Niedbala has been dancing his way around the world for a few years now as a dance major. But dance is not the only thing this senior does. He also majors in civil engineering.

It’s an academic combination rarely put together. One an art form, the other an applied science. But Niedbala couldn’t see doing one without the other. As a double major in each, he pursues two creative passions and taps into each side of his brain. And as he does, in many ways, his two seemingly-opposite pursuits become more similar than different.

“They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

“Both fields ask you to solve problems and there is a lot of gray area,” Niedbala says. “However, they feed off of each other very nicely, allowing creativity from dance’s freedom into engineering and the more concrete problem-solving of engineering into dance. They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

Niedbala landed at Hope College in the fall of 2015 planning to major only in engineering while continuing to feed his love for dance through co-curricular opportunities. “That’s the nice thing about Hope,” he says. “Even if you don’t major or minor in something, you can still take those classes.”

The switch from a single major to a double major happened about halfway through his college career. Being involved in Strike Time Dance Co. — Hope’s interactive performance group for children — and H-2 Dance Co. — Hope’s pre-professional repertory group — Niedbala began to face a reality he didn’t initially see coming. He wanted more from dance than he was getting solely as an engineering major. Performing for children created a new passion that hadn’t existed to him before.

In Strike Time

“There is something so genuine about performing for a young audience,” Niedbala says. “With an audience familiar with dance, there are expectations of what the art is supposed to look like, but with children, you can just move for movement’s sake and witness the wonder in their eyes.”

In Dance 45

Niedbala’s favorite dance performance, though, came while performing in Dance 45 this past spring. In “Chair Study Two,” choreographed by Hope dance professor Linda Graham, he was challenged and inspired. The piece is performed while moving on or around two chairs in complete unison and interaction with a partner.  The nuanced and stimulating artistry in this piece captivated Niedbala as he worked to perfect connected movement, making two bodies seem unified and cohesive in opposite chairs.

As a result of all his dance world exposure and dedication (he also performed with Strike Time in Australia), Niedbala has proved himself in the dance department to be immensely gifted to his craft.

Andrew celebrates the opportunity to take in knowledge and ways of knowing,” says dance professor Nicki Flinn. “His openness and inquiry is evident in all he does. Andrew’s work ethic and drive to make connections among subject areas, while sharing different perspectives, makes teaching and learning with him fun.”

Aside from his dance companies and dance classes, Niedbala has another major project on the other side of campus in the engineering department. As a civil engineering major, he has been working on his senior project which involves creating systems of energy optimization in a 1940s house in Coldwater, Michigan.

This Coldwater home where Niedbala worked on his senior engineering project.

Civil engineers conceive, design, build, supervise, operate, construct, and maintain infrastructure projects and systems in the public and private sector. The goal then of Niedbala’s project was to make the Coldwater house more energy efficient without changing the structure of the home so as to keep its historical build and character. From working with solar panels to geothermal energy, Niedbala and his group have offered solutions to make this house more efficient and sustainable as possible.

Niedbala, right, and his civil engineering team in Coldwater

Andrew is very easy-going but at the same time a very hard worker,” says Dr. Courtney Peckens, assistant professor of engineering. “It is a lot of work to balance two majors, especially with one of them being engineering, but he makes it look relatively easy.”

And Peckens was often reminded that Niedbala was fully engaged in both. How?

“One of the things that I will remember most about Andrew is that he always carries around a rather large container of water which probably holds at least 30 ounces,” she recalls. “Maybe this is a typical thing for dancers, but it is a fairly unique accessory for engineers. I taught him every day for two years and don’t think that I ever saw him without the same container.”

After graduation on May 5, Niedbala is excited to start studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam in the fall as well as gearing up for summer dance performances in France as part of the Paris May term with Hope College. More auditions of the dancing kind will follow in the near future. As for the engineering kind, Niedbala says he’ll wait and see. Right now, he is eager to set out into the “real” world and engineer a career in dance.

A Vital Partnership Becomes Vitalis

Purchasing a nursing textbook with required, additional materials can be costly at times. Realizing that students might be hard pressed to afford the extras that come with certain books and existing programs on the market, the Hope College nursing department decided to look for a cheaper way to provide a more basic but meaningful version of those educational necessities.

And they walked right across Hope’s Van Andel Plaza, located between the Schaap Science Center and VanderWerf Hall, to find their answer.

A new computer software program has been developed by two faculty members and four students of the Hope College computer science department, housed in VanderWerf, to allow the tracking and simulation of electronic medical records by students and faculty in the Hope College nursing department in lab experiences in Schaap. The digital platform, Vitalis, is the result. It simulates professional medical record-taking methods and aesthetics for Hope nursing students so that “real-world” experience can be realized at little cost.

In teaming up, the two departments created an educational experience that was mutually beneficial for students studying both majors.

Four of the five Vitalis student-creators at a poster presentation, left to right, Dane Linsky, Dennis Towns, Phil Caris, and Haoming Zhang

With prices for books and other expenses rising every year, Dr. Vicki Voskuil, assistant professor of nursing, and Trish Kragt, director of nursing laboratories, had been searching for some time for a way to mimic digital medical records for their lab courses in a cost-effective way.

Dr. Vicki Voskuil, associate professor of nursing

“We recognized the need within the last two or three years that while they [the students] have been doing narrative documentation in our classes, they really needed the computer piece to be able to electronically record [for the agencies],” Voskuil says.

The software development project was advertised to computer science students as one of the summer opportunities available in the computer science department’s Hope Software Institute. HSI provides rich, real-world software development experience to students interested in pursuing a career in industry as software developers. Three Hope students — senior Phil Caris, senior Dennis Towns and junior Jori Gelbaugh — were selected in the summer of 2018 to work alongside Dr. Ryan McFall and Dr. Michael Jipping, both professors of computer science at Hope.

The computer science students on the project recognized the privilege they had working with the faculty and used it as a growing, developing, and learning experience.

“It was my first time creating software that wasn’t in the classroom setting and interfacing with clients (the nursing department) gauging out what they want with those first initial steps of planning where you learn how the process usually starts,” Towns said.

Dr. Ryan McFall, professor of computer science

Not only was Vitalis a learning curve for students but also for the faculty leading the project. “Honestly, the technology we chose I didn’t really know either, and I took it as an opportunity to learn that as well,” says McFall.

The computer science students on the project recognized the privilege they had working with the faculty and used it as a growing, developing, and learning experience. “It helped a lot to see [Dr. McFall] who we all look up to, who is very clearly a lot smarter than us, struggling sometimes. [We realized] he doesn’t always know everything and that knocked us down a peg, too,” Caris said.

Sophomore nursing student Johanna Emmanuel takes vital on a clinical mannequin and records them using Vitalis.

The heft and complexity of it all meant Vitalis got created, tested, and recreated often. Every two weeks, those working on the project would meet with Voskuil and Kragt and others in the nursing department to hear critiques, suggestions as well as approvals. In these meetings, both departments had trouble communicating about the content required on both ends because of the jargon used on either side of the project. In the end, the two groups were able to bridge their communication gap by finding ways to share terminology.

Summer 2018 has come and gone, but the project is a continuous work in progress. In fall 2018, the project was handed off to a group of capstone students. Caris and Towns were able to continue on with additional teammates, senior Haoming Zhang and senior Dane Linsky. In spring of 2019, the project is still evolving and improving.

“One of the reasons we like these projects is because it’s what most people who are developing software have to do once they get out of college,” said McFall.

It’s been applicable for every job I’ve been called in to interview for, Phil Caris said.

Overall, the students and faculty from both departments agreed that developing Vitalis was a positive and beneficial experience. It’s been applicable for every job I’ve been called in to interview for, Caris said. These programs truly do create an experience for the student, preparing them for their “real world” opportunities.

“It was good to experience the workflow of a regular software development process,” said Zhang.

From the nursing department’s perspective, programming with the computer science department is only the beginning of a resourceful partnership. With medical records almost strictly digitized, the need for college nursing software has become vital.

Vitalis could become something that gets used in more than just our school,” Voskuil said. “It is pretty unique.”