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Elliott has 'a dedicated reverence for problem solving'

Robert Baines, a senior in mechanical engineering (MECH) at Rice University, met Matthew Elliott when he took his machine-design class as a junior.

“I was struck by his laid-back demeanor, yet he has a dedicated reverence for engineering problem solving. He cracked some quality corny jokes that semester,” Baines said of Elliott, a lecturer in MECH.

This year, Baines is enrolled in a capstone design class with Elliott as his adviser. Baines and his partners are working with NASA to test the usefulness of a new actuation architecture for its humanoid robot, Valkyrie.

“He’s consistently checking in on the state of our project, which is good considering the tedious nature of design. We always have questions. His feedback has been particularly useful in the areas of simulation and mechanical fixtures. I understand he wrote a thesis related to control systems, which is another big aspect of our project,” Baines said.

Baines’ assessment of Elliott, who joined the Rice faculty in 2015 after working 15 years in industry, is echoed by other students. Tibbie Cochran, a senior in MECH, also took MECH 401 as a junior. Now Elliott is her capstone adviser.

“You can tell he puts a lot of thought into his lectures, and he relates the topics to his industry experiences. He’s funny and shows us pictures of his dog Lucy, which keeps us all engaged in class,” Cochran said.

About Elliott’s capstone advising, Cochran said, “He always makes suggestions based on his own experiences. He’s honest and straightforward when evaluating my team’s ideas, and he offers achievable solutions if he identifies a problem.”

Elliott, 41, was born in Baton Rouge, La., where his father was studying in the veterinary school at Louisiana State University, and grew up in Thibodaux. His mother taught high-school science, and Elliott remembers always being encouraged to read, practice his saxophone and build things.

“My parents always said to learn what you can. You name the building toy set, and we had it,” he said.

Elliott went on to earn three degrees from Texas A&M University, all in MECH – a B.S. in 2000, a master’s degree in 2008, and a Ph.D. in 2013. In between those dates, Elliott had a broad education in the working world.

He worked for a company that remanufactures automobile engines and then as a project manager for a shipyard. Next he joined an offshore services company in Houston and stayed for four years. “That’s where I learned to be a design engineer. It had a sort of Mom-and-Pop, get-it-done culture, and I learned a lot,” Elliott said.

Two weeks before his 30th birthday, he decided to enter graduate school. “I was not a distinguished undergraduate, but I had grown up a lot in the meantime. The single biggest difference was me,” he said.

In 2012 he joined Stingray Offshore, where for three years he was an equity partner and senior mechanical engineer. Immediately before coming to Rice, Elliott worked as an engineering manager for a Pearland firm that provides inspection, repair and fabrication services for the drilling industry.

In the classroom, Elliott’s manner is relaxed and conversational, yet focused on the math and physics that underpin engineering. During a recent MECH 211 class in engineering mechanics, Elliott drew a diagram of airplane landing gear on the white board, surrounded by arrows illustrating lines of force. After quoting Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Elliott said to the class, “Put yourself in the position of the part. What are you going to do? This should be an interesting thought experiment.”

Elliott advises 11 capstone teams. Along with teaching other undergraduate classes, he serves as an undergraduate adviser and has accreditation responsibilities. “With capstone, all I have to do is point them in the right direction and get out of their way. These are very bright, motivated students,” he said.

Another of Elliott’s capstone-by-way-of-machine-design students is Nicole Moes, also a senior in MECH:

“Dr. Elliott makes sure his students understand the material, but also makes sure we understand engineering as a practical profession. He’s approachable, and he understands the perspective of undergraduates. Meetings with him are technically enlightening and entertaining, which is a rare and valuable quality in a professor.”