Category Archives: Fridays with Fuhrmann

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Summer Solstice and Signal Processing

FunintheUP.com photo
FunintheUP.com photo

A very happy midsummer to all from the northern reaches of Michigan! This is the season for long days in the Keweenaw, and I thought it would be fun this week to explore some of the basic mathematical facts about sunrise, sunset, and the length of days, and throw in a little signal processing to boot.

First off, while the days are long this time of year, what makes them seem longer here is the timing of sunrise and sunset. Yes, we are pretty far north compared to most of the 48 contiguous states, but we are not really that far north. At 47 degrees N latitude, we are at about the same latitude as the northern tip of Maine, we are slightly south of Seattle, south of most of Canada and all of Alaska, and well south of all of Great Britain and Scandinavia. Our longest days in the summer are about 16 hours, and the shortest days in the winter are about 8 hours. There are plenty of places on the globe with greater variation in the length of day than that. The reason we think the days are so long right now is because of a quirk in the time zone map. Like all but three counties in the Upper Peninsula, Houghton County is in the Eastern time zone, despite the fact that we are slight west of Chicago, which is in the Central time zone. The story goes that we are on Eastern time so that we would be in the same time zone as the bankers and mine owners on the East Coast, 100 years ago. As a result, this time of year the sunset occurs around 9:50pm, and twilight extends for another hour or so after that. For those of us working at Tech and leaving around 4 or 5pm, it’s like another whole day to play outside.

This year the summer solstice occurred on Wednesday, June 21. While we often think of the solstice as a day, in fact it is a particular moment in time when the Earth’s axis of rotation is most tilted toward the Sun. At that instant, the axis of rotation is co-planar with the axis of revolution of the Earth around the Sun, and the Sun shines directly down on the Tropic of Cancer. This year the solstice occurred at 12:24am EDT, on Wednesday, July 21. The time of the summer solstice moves forward about 6 hours, or one quarter of a day, each year, as the period of revolution of the Earth around the Sun is about 365-1/4 days. The 1/4 day is why we have a leap year ever four years, and on those years the time of the summer solstice moves back 18 hours from the previous year. Oddly enough, part of the reason we say the solstice occurred on June 21 this year has to do with Daylight Saving Time; if we were on Standard Time the solstice would have occurred on Tuesday, June 20, at 11:24pm. As it turns out the longest day of the year, measured from sunrise to sunset, was actually June 20.

Here is a little-known fact which has fascinated me ever since I discovered it. The longest day of the year does not coincide with either the earliest sunrise or the latest sunset. At our latitude, the earliest sunrise occurs about 5 days before the solstice, and the latest sunset occurs about 5 days after. That means that, at the time of this writing, we have not even seen the latest sunset this year; that will occur on Sunday, July 25, at 9:54:06 p.m. The sunset time is not changing quickly, though: on both June 24 and June 26, sunset is at 9:54:05 p.m. Those who understand the basic concept from Calculus 101, that the slope of a function is zero at its maximum, will appreciate that.

The length of the day is defined as the time between sunrise and sunset, or if we want to do an arithmetic calculation, it is the sunset time minus the sunrise time. The addition or subtraction of two periodic functions that are synchronized in time is an important concept from the course I teach, EE1110, Essential Mathematics for Electrical Engineering. There we consider a particular class of functions, called sinusoids, and show that as long as two sinusoids have exactly the same frequency, then the sum or difference will also be a sinusoid, and furthermore there is a straightforward algorithm to figure out where the peaks and valleys of the sum (or difference) will be relative to the peaks and valleys of the signals being added or subtracted. In the case of the sunrise and sunset times, we already see that the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset are offset by about 10 days at our latitude, and that the longest day will occur somewhere in the middle.

Thinking there might be an interesting connection between electrical engineering and astronomy, I figured I would just go ahead and look at the numerical data in MATLAB and see if I could use it to illustrate EE1110 principles. There are lots of places on the Internet to find sunrise and sunset data times; here is one operated by the U.S. Navy: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneYear.php. What is nice about this site is that it provides the data for an entire year, in a format that is easy to cut and paste into an Excel spreadsheet. So, that is exactly what I did: I put the 2017 data into Excel, then imported it into MATLAB, then reformatted it so that times are expressed in minutes (from midnight) and kept everything in Eastern Standard Time. I also got rid of the months and dates, simply numbering the days sequentially starting with Day 0 being January 1, 2017. All of that took longer than it should have, but now I have the data conveniently in a .mat file.

The upper panel in Figure 1 below shows the time of the sunrise (in green) and sunset (in red), measured in minutes from midnight, Eastern Standard Time, as a function of the day, for the entire year 2017. In the lower panel I show the length of the day (in blue), in minutes, which is simply the sunset function minus the sunrise function. For point of reference, one full day is 1440 minutes.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Here is where I got the first of three surprises in this little exercise. The sunrise and sunset functions are quite asymmetric, in the sense that they do not look the same when you flip them upside down. The latest sunset occurs after the summer solstice, whereas the earliest sunset occurs before the winter solstice, which means that the time from a peak to valley is considerably shorter, like 20 days, then the time from a valley to a peak. We see the same behavior in the sunrise data. Now the symmetry of sinusoids is important to a lot of the EE1110 theory, and because of the asymmetry issue we cannot use sinusoids to model sunrise and sunset data. Consequently, the idea of using sunrise and sunset times as an illustrative example of EE1110 concepts is out the window. Dang!

We are not done yet, however. As can be observed in the lower panel, the length of day function does exhibit symmetry, in fact it looks downright sinusoidal. So, I thought maybe we could throw some of our signal processing tools (well beyond the scope of EE1110) at this data and see if we can determine the period, or time for one complete cycle. To make this a little more accurate, I decided to look at four consecutive year’s worth of data, from 2017 to 2020. This data is shown in the Figure 2 below, which is essentially the same as Figure 1 except it goes for four years. To compute the period, or more precisely the frequency (the inverse of the period, in cycles per day), I used a common technique from signal processing of computing the Discrete Fourier Transform (DFT) of the data, using an algorithm called the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), and looking for the point at which the DFT reaches its maximum. For those following along at this point, I subtracted off the mean of the data, and zero-padded it out to 65536 data points before computing the DFT. Doing these kinds of calculations in MATLAB comes very easily to me after many years of signal processing research; it’s the kind of stuff I can sit at my desk and bang away and have it work right the first time.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Except…I made a crucial mistake, and got the second surprise. The absolute value of the DFT of the length-of-day data is shown in Figure 3 below. The horizontal axis has units of frequency, in cycles/day. I was able to zoom in and find the frequency at which the DFT reaches a peak, and that value is 0.002762 cycles/day. 1 over this should be the correct period for one revolution, right? Wrong. 1/0.002762 = 362.06 days. I knew that can’t possibly be right – the period should 365.25 days. Where did I go wrong? It turns out I fell into a common trap (that I often rail against) of using the DFT without thinking carefully about the interpretation of the results. I had “known” forever that the best way to determine the frequency of a single sinusoid is to the compute the Fourier Transform and look for a maximum. That result is part of the collective wisdom of everyone in signal processing, and goes back at least to the often cited paper by D. Rife and R. Boorstyn, “Single Tone Parameter Estimation from Discrete-Time Observations,” IEEE Trans. Information Theory, September 1974. Well, I went back to that paper and found my error. Rife and Boorstyn consider the frequency estimation for a function called a complex exponential, sometimes called a complex sinusoid. (EE1110 students know all about complex exponentials, right?) For complex exponentials, computing the Fourier Transform and looking for a peak is exactly the right thing to do. However, a real sinusoid, like our length-of-day data, is actually the sum of two complex exponentials, one at a positive frequency and one at a negative frequency. The Fourier Transforms of those two complex exponentials can interfere with one another in such a way that the peaks can be shifted from what we would consider the correct location, in this case some 3.2 days (or the equivalent error in frequency). After some reflection I realized that the only way to really get the frequency right – that I could think of, anyway – is to do what is called nonlinear least-squares estimation, which essentially means looking exhaustively across all sinusoids for one that comes closest to matching the given data. Without going into too much more detail, I did exactly that for my length-of-day data and came up with a frequency of 0.002738 cycles/day, which corresponds to the period I expected, 365.25 days.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Last observation, and last surprise. I mentioned above that, before taking the Discrete Fourier Transform, I subtracted off the mean value. Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at that mean value; it was 734 minutes, or 12 hours and 14 minutes. Hold on, I thought – how can the average length of day be anything other than 12 hours? Every spot on the Earth enjoys equal amounts of light and darkness over one entire year, so the average has to be 12 hours, right? Again, wrong. Thanks goodness for the Internet. I Googled “average day length greater than 12 hours?” and hit on this beautiful little explanation: http://rickbradford.co.uk/DayLength.pdf. The author identifies three separate effects, but the largest and easiest to explain has to do with the non-zero diameter of the disk of the Sun, as seen from the Earth. We define sunrise and sunset as the moments when the Sun just appears or disappears over the horizon, but in fact it might be more accurate to define it as the moment when the center of the Sun disk crosses the horizon. That would bring more symmetry to the definitions of day and night, and shave a few minutes off the time we associate with day. Because of the nonzero diameter of the Sun, more than 50% of the Earth can see at least a portion of the Sun at any given moment, thus making the average length of day greater than 12 hours.

Make the most of these long days and the beautiful weather! The days are already getting shorter.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Rants from the Grammar Maven

FWF-image-20170616I am taking a break this week from recent discussions of relatively important topics like why we do what we do in academics, so that I can vent about one of my pet peeves. In the big scheme of things, today’s topic is totally unimportant, but sometimes things like this occupy more of our attention than they rightfully should so it’s good just to put it out there. I am referring to a particular issue of grammar that comes up quite often in academic circles.

I am amazed by the number of people who are willfully unfamiliar with the correct use of the word alumni. I am talking about people who should know better: students, faculty, our local daily newspaper, and yes, sometimes, professionals at Michigan Tech who work in communications, development, and alumni relations.

The word alumnus is a noun that comes from Latin, and like all Latin nouns it has what is known as a declension, that is, it has various forms depending on number and gender. This is sort of like conjugation, except that conjugation is applied to verbs, with various forms that depend on who, when, and whether or not the action is hypothetical.

Here is the correct (nominative) declension for the noun alumnus:

Alumnus  Singular, male or unknown
Alumna    Singular, female
Alumni     Plural, male, mixed or unknown
Alumnae  Plural, female

We have all heard or read it: an individual person is described as “an alumni” of some institution. For me this is like fingernails on the chalkboard. I must have said this a hundred times, and I guess I will keep saying it as long as I see the error being made, which is probably forever: ALUMNI IS PLURAL. ALUMNUS IS SINGULAR.

[Aside 1: The full declension for a noun includes a lot of other variations, like whether the noun is a subject, an object, or turned into a modifier. Most of those variations apply to the original Latin, not the way the derived word is used in English. In the above I am sticking just to the nominative case; I don’t want to get too far distracted here.]

[Aside 2: Have you ever actually scraped your fingernails on a chalkboard? I did it once, in junior high, and it is really awful. Now go back to what you were doing and try not to think about it.]

I recognize full well that there are two schools of thought regarding grammar. There is the constructivist school, which posits that grammar should follow carefully prescribed rules of usage that are written in stone forever, and the pragmatist school, which says that languages are alive and evolving, and that grammar is whatever the users say it is. I am kind of in the middle; I can tolerate some changes to the language if they make sense, like split infinitives. On the issue of alumni, however, I am a strict constructivist: anything other than the use of the word as given in the table above is flat-out wrong, I don’t care who you are or how many times you have used it incorrectly. Repeating a lie a hundred times does not make it true.

Some people skirt the issue of gender by using the more informal term alum. I think of this as a kind of slang used by people in development, and that’s fine. I am pretty certain that the term is singular and that the correct plural is alums. I have sometimes heard people use alum in the plural, like deer or moose, but every time I do, I find it jarring and think that it has to be wrong. Since we are talking about slang, I doubt if there are any strict rules.

Another one of those things that will never, ever be right is “for you and I” or any other use of the subject pronoun I instead of the object pronoun me in a prepositional clause. Somewhere along the line, people began to think that I sounds more sophisticated and correct than me, in all uses, and this error crept into the language. Again, we hear it all the time.

Here is another common error, still wrong but leading more to raising of eyebrows rather than gnashing of teeth. I often see the word itinerary when people are putting together a schedule for visitors on campus. An itinerary is a schedule for travel, like airline flights and hotels. It comes from Latin roots meaning a journey or a road. A schedule for activity in one place is simply that, a schedule. A schedule for a meeting is an agenda, although that word can have other more subtle meanings depending on the context.

Having gotten all that off my chest, I will close with a couple of items that are more matters of legitimate debate. The first is the pronunciation of the word alumnae, which comes up fairly often at Michigan Tech since we have an organization called the Presidential Council of Alumnae. There are two accepted pronunciations, alum-NEE and alum-NAY. There is not really a whole lot to debate here; it is more of an “agree to disagree” situation between the advocates of the respective positions. I am good either way.

My last item has to do with what we call someone who has served with distinction on the faculty, has moved on to retirement, is recognized by the institution, and happens to be a woman – is that person a Professor Emeritus, or Professor Emerita? The strict constructivists would say that Emeritus is correct since the choice has to do with grammatical gender, not biological sex, and since Professor is a masculine noun (in Latin) it should take the corresponding masculine modifier. The pragmatist can legitimately say yes, but how did Professor become masculine in the first place? When our very own Martha Sloan retired a few years, we came down on the pragmatist side and are proud to call her the very first (and only, so far) Professor Emerita in the ECE Department. I’m good with that one too.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Why Do We Teach?

Why Do We Teach?
Why Do We Teach?

In my last post, I raised the question of why we do research in a university setting.  My main point, which I hope I made clear enough, is that we should have research programs because we are passionate about the work itself, and not for some other reason such as supporting a PhD program.  While PhD programs are an important part of what we do, I believe strongly that we cannot be effective advisors and mentors for PhD students—training our replacements, essentially—unless we are good at research in the first place, in our own right.

Having addressed that question, an obvious companion question came to mind—why do we teach?  At first, my motivation for addressing this was only out of symmetry.  Normally, when I realize I am about to do something for that reason, I remember the old adage “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and then go ahead and do it anyway.  In this case, however, raising the question itself was an opportunity for me to explore some of my own life choices.  This was one of those cases where, having decided on a topic, I was not entirely clear on the points I was going to make until I was done writing! Hopefully you will find a little more clarity below, and if not I hope this might stir any readers who are teachers to ask the same question of himself or herself.

By way of context, I should mention that I come from a long line of teachers, including several math teachers.  My grandfather on my father’s side was a farmer in Oklahoma and Kansas, and in the 1910s and 1920s his primary income came from teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in western Oklahoma.  The handbell he used to call students to class after lunch and recess still sits on the piano in my home.  My grandmother on my mother’s side taught grade school in a white community adjacent to an Indian reservation in eastern Washington, during World War I, before she married my grandfather and moved to Oklahoma.  My mother took up teaching as a second career in the 1970s, and was a math teacher in the Tulsa public school system and later at Tulsa Junior College.  I have one cousin who teaches high-school math in a suburban Tulsa school district, and another who recently retired from teaching high-school math in Fremont, California.  I have a nephew who is a faculty member in math at Glendale Community College, in Los Angeles, a niece who taught high-school math in Niwot, Colorado, a niece who teaches middle-school English in Norman, Oklahoma, and is married to the high school debate coach, and the wife of a nephew who taught elementary school in another Tulsa suburb.  I guess it’s in my DNA.

This is as good a place as any to mention that my father was an electrical engineer and my mother was a math teacher, and for the past five years I have put a lot of effort into teaching a large freshman class called “Essential Mathematics for Electrical Engineering.”  Sometimes the universe does offer up beautiful symmetries, if we are paying attention.

But back to the question of why we teach in the first place. Here is my top 10 list.

1. We are good at it.  Some people just have a knack for communication and connecting with others, for organizing and presenting their ideas clearly and concisely, for showing that what they are trying to do really matters.  I have heard it said that “before someone cares what you know, they have to know that you care.”  Teachers who can pull this off have found the right line of work.

2. Someone pays us to do it.  This often goes along with #1 above.  If there is something that we do reasonably well, and others are willing to pay us for it, chances are it is something that we find enjoyable and rewarding.  At the very least it gives us a reason to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other.  A paycheck might not be world’s best motivation, but it is not the worst one either.

3. It keeps us young.  This was something I noticed when I first entered graduate school—all of my professors seemed younger than their counterparts at the same chronological age in industry.  There has to be something about the constant contact with those from an earlier generation that allows us to continue seeing the world with fresh eyes.  This doesn’t really address the problem of the ever-widening gap between my generation and that of our students, but I don’t think anyone is going to solve that one.  Time’s arrow moves in one direction.

4. Benefits to the individual students. At a place like Michigan Tech, our teaching programs are built around improving the lives of our individual students, giving them the skills and the knowledge that they need to be successful, personally, professionally, and financially.  Of course we have to hold our students to a high standard; otherwise our efforts are meaningless.  At the end of the day, however, our placement rates and starting salaries speak for themselves.  We aim as well to provide students with the means for lifelong learning and an ability for critical thinking that will serve them well in all aspects of life.

5.Workforce training and economic development.  Going hand-in-hand with the benefits to our own graduates, as individuals, is the benefit that those graduates bring as newly trained engineers to our state, our region, and the nation as a whole.  As I have pointed out before, Michigan Tech is unique in Michigan in that our obligation to the welfare of the various industries in the state is called out in our founding legislation. Placing properly educated engineers in positions of responsibility is a big part of what we do. The economic situation in Michigan has had its ups and downs, but right now things are looking up, and we need to do our part to continue moving in the right direction.

6. Benefits to society at large.  The benefits of a college education to society have long been recognized. Thomas Jefferson noted that democracy and self-government could not function without an educated populace capable of making well-reasoned decisions, and he used that as an argument for education reform in our new nation.  Benefits that go beyond economics in modern society are well-documented, see e.g. the recent report by the College Board entitled “Education Pays 2016.” A college degree is associated with a healthier lifestyles, regular exercise, reduced healthcare costs, greater engagement with family members, community volunteer activity, and higher voting rates. It’s hard not to want to be a part of that.

7. It’s the best way to learn a new topic. This is one of those academic truisms that gets played out all the time.  If a faculty member wants to steer his or her research or scholarship in a new direction, the first thing we try to do is teach a new course in that area.  This forces us to learn the subject thoroughly, in an organized way, and we are put on a schedule with a weekly deadline where we have to stand up in front of a classroom and defend what have learned.  One does not understand a subject until one can explain it clearly to someone else.

8. Fundamentals are important.  Just like teaching a new course is good way to learn a new topic, it is also true that teaching a familiar topic is a good way to maintain a healthy intellectual discipline.  This is an important message to carry to those outside of academia with whom we work, as well as our graduates about to enter the workforce.  We sometimes hear this narrative that material taught in the classroom is irrelevant, and that the “real” technical knowledge is what one learns on the job.  I emphatically reject that notion.  While an industrial perspective can be quite valuable for our educational programs, I have also seen situations in which technical projects go awry when engineers lose sight of the very foundations of their field.  In engineering, just like in baseball, the fundamentals never go out of style, and the most successful companies and organizations know that.

9. We have nothing better to do.  It goes without saying that this is the absolute worst reason to teach. Unfortunately, it can happen that faculty members who are unproductive in other areas find themselves with increased teaching responsibilities. In the worst-case scenario these responsibilities are assigned as a form of punishment. (I do not subscribe to this management philosophy!)  It is as if teaching is the fallback position, our “day job” as it were, like waiting tables or driving for Uber. (I hasten to add that here is absolutely nothing wrong with waiting tables or driver for Uber if that is what brings satisfaction or what one needs to do to make ends meet.)  In a future post I hope to take up the relationship between teaching and research, but for now I will just say that this assumption—that we can always teach—does not help to counter the myth that research is more important than teaching.  Our academic workload models tend to be built around the notion that we do as much research as we can find support for, and whatever time is left over is then devoted to teaching.  Part of me wishes that faculty had to compete for the right to teach courses (and get paid for it), the same way we have to compete to do research through writing grant proposals and the like.  The good news, at least in the ECE department at Michigan Tech, is that this sort of default teaching is pretty rare.  It is true that we have a few faculty members who are not research active, but most are outstanding teachers and would win hands-down any competition that would earn them the right to teach as much as they do.

10. We want to make the world a better place.  This is my half serious, half glib, reason that encompasses a lot of the other good reasons I give above, and I add it here because I really did not want to end with #9.  It is the same reason that I gave in my last post about why we do research.  In teaching we make the world a better place through leverage, by giving large numbers of young people the tools that they need to go out and improve life for themselves and for everyone around them.  I will admit, this is the viewpoint of the eternal optimist, but that is a criticism I can live with.

Although not utilized very often, this blog post does have a comment feature.  Teachers out there, I would love to hear from you.  Why do you teach?

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Why Do Research?

Autonomous vehicle research by ECE Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos
Autonomous vehicle research by ECE Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos

A very happy Memorial Day Weekend to everyone. The weather here has warmed up nicely, all of a sudden, just in time for long holiday weekend and the unofficial beginning of summer. Over the years this has become one of my favorite holidays. For academics it is a time when we can look forward to the summer in anticipation of all of our great progress on projects we have been putting off, before reality and humility hit home in August. Back when I lived in Missouri, it was the start of the summer boating season at the Lake of the Ozark, and here in Houghton I am happy just to see everything green again after a long winter. I guess the main reason I enjoy this weekend so much is that my wife and I were married on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, 22 years ago this year, and we celebrate our anniversary on Sunday independent of the date – although this year the 28th does fall on Sunday and when that happens it’s even nicer. Sunday is the day of the Indianapolis 500, by the way, so even though I am not a big racing fan it serves as a pleasant reminder of that happy day.

Last week I decided to raise the “big question” – asking why we do what we do. What is it that gets our juices flowing, gets us excited about coming to work, gives us some purpose in life? Obviously I cannot answer that for all the individuals in the ECE Department, but I certainly hope that everyone would have a good answer, and be able to come up with it pretty quickly too. A big part of my job is to connect those individual passions with the group goals, whether we are talking about the strategic plan for the ECE Department or the mission and vision of Michigan Tech as a whole.

The question I want to address today is, why do we do research? One would think that would not be too hard to answer, but actually over the past few years I have heard a lot of conflicting opinions about this. I have also come to my own conclusion about this, and now hope to take advantage of my little bully pulpit to make my case. If I am right, then I think that ultimately we may be able to put policies and procedures in place that serve to strengthen our research programs, and at the same time strengthen everything else that we do.

Here is my answer: we do research to make the world a better place. Now that may seem a little trite and simplistic, but I mean that in the broadest possible sense. We make the world a better place in a lot of different ways, and what I really mean by that statement is, the research itself is primary. We do research because we believe that the results of our research will have some tangible benefit to humankind, whether it is advancing our understanding of how the world works, or it solves some intellectual puzzle in mathematics, or it leads to technological advances that improve the human condition. Everyone who does research properly knows the reason behind the research, and the range of possible applications. Whatever problem we are trying to solve, the solution to that problem should be our primary motivation, and if we are lucky enough to find it we should go home happy.

The point above will be made clearer if I state some reasons that I believe are the wrong reasons for doing research. Here is my list of three misguided reasons; there may be others: 1) we do research so we can have a PhD program, 2) we do research for faculty development, 3) we do research because someone tells us we have to.

Let me take the PhD issue first, because this is where I find the greatest confusion and misunderstanding, and the greatest difference of opinion. Virtually all great research institutions have strong PhD programs, and the two go hand-in-hand. Since a lot of research is carried out by graduate students, it is easy to see why one might be led to believe that the research activity exists to serve the PhD program. I maintain that nothing could be further from the truth. A successful research program should be led by experienced faculty, who are doing the work out of their love for the field itself, as described above. In the process, if they so chose, they can bring PhD students into that research activity, and serve as an example for them. As one of my former colleagues at Washington University, Marcel Muller, used to put it, a PhD program is an apprenticeship in research. A graduate student comes to the university, lines up with a research advisor, and learns all about how research is done from that personal one-on-one relationship. We must remember, however, that the PhD is still an educational program, and it exists separate from the research. That is why we have specific milestones along the way to the degree, such as qualifying exams and dissertation proposals, and why we have committees to make sure that those milestones are being met. At an educational institution like Michigan Tech we may view training PhD students as an important part of our mission, which it is, but we are making a mistake if we take that attitude too far and do all of our research vicariously through the students.

A strong research program can accomplish a great deal even without PhD students. Many successful programs include personnel at all different levels, including post-doctoral research fellows and full-time research engineers or research scientists. I would argue that a tenured or tenure-track faculty member, who spends a lot of time as a research supervisor, should always have some project that they consider theirs alone, that they can work on without the collaboration of students. A research organization should be like a music conservatory, where the leaders are performers as well as teachers. Perhaps another good model is the teaching hospital, where the mentors for the next generation of doctors are all practicing clinicians and surgeons in their own right. The PhD program is just one component in the research mix, and prospective PhD students should be looking for opportunities to learn the craft of research from the masters of the craft.

The second flawed reason I give for doing research is faculty development. Here I mean that doing research so that faculty members have something stimulating to do, that they stay current in the field, have something to put on their CVs, or so that they have a reason to go to conferences and interact with their peers. All of those are perfectly valid things to want to do. However, all of those activities serve to further the research agenda, and should not be seen as a reason for the research activity in the first place. Just as in the case of the PhD students, the latter is putting the cart before the horse. One might argue that doing research makes us better teachers, and while that may very well be true, it is still not the the right reason to do research. The ideal scholarly situation occurs when research and teaching co-exist in a sort of symbiotic balance. It’s not always easy to pull off, but when it’s working that’s when the magic happens.

The absolute worst reason to do research is to do it because someone else wants you to do it. Any such research program is doomed to mediocrity. Anyone who joins a research university as a teacher, and complains of a “publish or perish” culture, or thinks of teaching as the real work while research is just something we do to entertain ourselves, probably ought to find another place to work. If we are doing research because we want to make the world a better place, then we are motivated to publish so that we can tell the rest of the world exactly how we have done that. Research is a “get to”, not a “have to.” I am not saying that research is more important than teaching, nor am I saying that everyone at a successful university has to focus primarily on research. We need to recognize that we are a diversity community, and strive to make the most of everyone’s talent and passion. The last thing we need to be doing is force people to do things they are not good at or for which they have no motivation. The trick of course is to identify those individuals, through the processes of hiring, promotion, and tenure, whose goals and aspirations line up with those of the institution.

As we work to build our research activity in the ECE Department at Michigan Tech, we may need to go through a period of contraction in our PhD program until the two are properly aligned. Over the past several years we went through a period of intentional growth in our PhD program, but I cannot honestly say that our research program has experienced a corresponding similar growth. Let me be more precise, and also fair: our research program, as measured by research expenditures, has not grown substantially. However, our research program, as measured by the number of faculty members with external research funding has grown by quite a bit, and I take that as a very good sign. I intend to encourage all our research-active faculty to be clear in their own minds what really drives them and what they hope to accomplish through their research. Only then does it makes sense to invite PhD students into that activity, and perhaps to excite in them that same sense of purpose. Ultimately, as I stated at the outset, I believe firmly that this will strengthen both the research activity and the PhD program, and secure for the Department the visibility and the recognition it seeks.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Have great Memorial Day everybody!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Starting with Why, Part 1

FWF-image-20170522 It’s been a quiet week in Houghton, just like in Lake Wobegon I suppose. It seems like hardly anyone is around except for the few instructors we have teaching summer classes. The weather has been pretty lousy – cold, rainy, and windy – and even though the lawns around town are greening up, the leaves on the trees are still struggling to come out. The academic year is over but it is too early in the season to enjoy any summertime outdoor activities in the Keweenaw. It’s a perfect time to travel.

This is also a good time to take a breather to step back and think about the bigger picture at Michigan Tech. We have the search for a new president coming up next academic year, along with searches for three deans, in the College of Engineering, the College of Sciences and Arts, and the School of Technology. (I hasten to add here, as does our current Dean of Engineering Wayne Pennington: there is no crisis. Everyone just reached retirement age at the same time.) A lot of people are going to be taking a hard look at the kind of university we want to be as we move forward, and I count myself among them.

Thinking about strategic issues and traveling at the same time provides the opportunity to get in some extra reading, in airports, on planes, and by the hotel pool. As luck would have it my wife was reading the book Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, and she loaned it to me for my recent travels to Houston, Seattle, and Tulsa. It is the perfect catalyst to get one thinking about the larger, more important issues in any organization.

Pretty much everything you need to know about Sinek’s book you can get from the title. Essentially, he makes the case that every successful business, organization, or movement knows at its core its reason for existence – the WHY. The HOW and the WHAT will follow naturally from the WHY. If the leaders of the business, organization, or movement can articulate and communicate the WHY to both the members (e.g. employees) and the stakeholders (e.g. customers) then everyone is motivated for the right reasons, and the organization will flourish. He cites Apple, Southwest Airlines, and the civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as examples of this principle in action. Best line in the book: Dr. King gave the “I Have A Dream” speech, not the “I Have a Plan” speech. If you sit back and think about it, this is not rocket science, but it is an idea that is critically important, and easily forgotten in the day-to-day operations of HOW and WHAT (and yes, Sinek puts those three words in ALL CAPS throughout the book.)

So why does Michigan Tech exist? Good question. There is actually one very good answer, spelled out in the opening section our founding legislation. Here, according to the State of Michigan in 1885, and amended in 1963 and 1964 to change the name, is our raison d’etre:

The institution established in the Upper Peninsula known as the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, referred to in the constitution of 1963 as the Michigan College of Science and Technology, is continued after January 1, 1964, under the name of Michigan Technological University, and shall be maintained for the purpose and under the regulations contained in this act. The institution shall provide the inhabitants of this state with the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the mineral industry in its various phases, and of the application of science to industry, as exemplified by the various engineering courses offered at technological institutions, and shall seek to promote the welfare of the industries of the state, insofar as the funds provided shall permit and the Board of Control shall deem advisable.

This is pretty unambiguous: we exist to provide a means for the inhabitants of Michigan to acquire knowledge in the application of science to industry (which I would argue means STEM) and to promote the welfare of industries in the state. [OK, there is that part about the mineral industry which seems a bit dated, although I am certain my friends over in Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences love it.] In essence, the founding legislation speaks to education and research, and specifically STEM education and industrial research. Close inspection reveals that this paragraph does not say anything about educating students from other states or other countries, nor does it say anything about doing government-sponsored basic research, nor does it say we will promote the welfare of industries in California.

Don’t worry, I am not going to be a strict constructionist here. I realize that our founding legislation is a living document, much like the U.S. Constitution, and that the very changes in society, technology, and industry that we have helped to bring about force us to reconsider exactly what it means to be useful to the State of Michigan. I am happy that we have students from all over the U.S. and from abroad, I am happy that our research portfolio includes a lot of basic science as well as applied science, and I am happy that our graduates have good job opportunities all across the country. One can easily argue that all this activity is good for Michigan citizens and Michigan industry, and besides, the world is much smaller now than it was in 1885 and we need to have a global perspective. Thankfully, we have a Board of Trustees who acts as our “supreme court” and which can interpret our founding legislation in a way that keeps us relevant for the 21st century.

That being said, I am not shy about asserting that Michigan Tech is and always has been a technological university at its core. We need to embrace that identity and not try to run away from it; it’s who we are, it’s what we do, it’s in our DNA. I am also not shy about saying that Michigan Tech has a responsibility to the State of Michigan in some way or another, whether that means providing a pipeline of well-prepared talent in STEM fields or supporting industry through basic and applied research. Lately I have been throwing in the phrase “and the larger Great Lakes region” when I speak or write about our role in the state, because I think we all interconnected now, and what is good for Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio is by and large good for Michigan too – and vice versa.

An issue related to our purpose in life occasionally comes up in conversation around the department, when someone throws out the question “Who are our customers?” It took me a while but I now have my stock answer to this question, which is: we are not a business, therefore we do not have customers. We are an institution that serves the public good, and we have many stakeholders. These include our students, our students’ families, our alumni, our research sponsors, our industrial recruiters, our other industries in the state, and the State of Michigan as a whole. There is a whole ecosystem surrounding discovery, innovation, education, and workforce training, and when we are operating at our best these parts are all working together for the betterment of society as a whole. Now it is tempting to say that “students are our customers, they are the ones paying the bills” and it is very easy to see why many students and their parents would adopt this stand. However, this is an unfortunate consequence of the drop in state funding and the subsequent increase in tuition which shifts the financial burden to the students and their families, and I certainly agree that it is substantial. Please don’t misunderstand: we take our responsibilities to our students very seriously. I do want to point out that there was a time when students paid a nominal fraction of the cost of their education, and the rest was borne by the state because the higher education of students who would contribute to economic and social development of the state was a benefit to all citizens, not just those attending college. [This is going off on a tangent, but I recommend reading the editorial in the New York Times Magazine on February 21, 2017, lamenting the loss of the “public” in public schools.]

If we fast-forward from 1885 we can find a more modern version of Michigan Tech’s WHY in our strategic plan, easily found on the website https://www.banweb.mtu.edu/pls/owa/strategic_plan.p_display. There you will find our Mission, our Vision, and our Goals, as developed over several years recently by the administration and the Board of Trustees with lots of input from the entire university community. At first I thought it would be straightforward to map WHY, HOW and WHAT onto Mission, Vision, and Goals, but that didn’t quite work out. In fact, in doing some background reading on mission and vision statements, I found conflicting guidance on what belongs in a mission statement, with different authors claiming it should be WHY, HOW, or WHAT. The one consistent guidance I found was that the mission speaks to the present, while the vision speaks to the future. So, with that little admission of my own state of confusion, I am going to take the university’s Vision as the definitive statement of why we believe we exist now. I am going to make one little modification, and change the future tense to the present tense:

Michigan Tech leads as a global technological university that inspires students, advances knowledge, and innovates to create a sustainable, just, and prosperous world.

I’m good with this. Obviously this statement has much broader reach than the opening paragraph of our founding legislation, but there is nothing in this statement that outright contradicts that original document. If we are successful in all our global aspirations that in all likelihood we will fulfill all our local responsibilities.

There is another little phrase that has been used by the university for many years. It is not our mission or our vision, nor is it an official motto or slogan of any kind; some people simply call it our “tagline.” It pops up on a lot of Michigan Tech promotional material, and it goes like this:

We prepare students to create the future.

This is very catchy and I acknowledge the author, unknown to me, for succinctly capturing a nice idea. Unfortunately, I am not good with this as a statement of the Michigan Tech WHY because it does short shrift to our aspirations in research and our responsibility to support industry. I know, everybody’s a critic.

My whole point in this exploration of the Michigan Tech WHY, beyond just pontificating on someone else’s wordsmithing, is that I think we all need to keep the big picture in front of us at this critical juncture in the life of the university. It is my hope that our new leadership will not only have a compelling vision for the future of the university, but will also work to communicate that vision regularly to the university community. We all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and we look to our leaders to give us a better reason than a paycheck. I can get behind inspiring students and advancing knowledge, but so can a lot of universities (all of them, actually) so I want us to do it in a way that is a reflection of Michigan Tech’s special place in the world. We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to offer. As long as the university community and the rest of the world know WHY that is true then we will be in good shape.

Coming up: I will get further into the weeds of WHY we do certain things in the ECE Department. In the meantime, enjoy the last few days of May.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Under the Radar

FWF_image_20170512Greetings one and all from beautiful Seattle, Washington, where I have been attending the 2017 IEEE Radar Conference. It has been a nice change of pace to immerse myself in a technical environment, catch up with some old friends, and think about some problems that I have not visited in some time.

Radar is an interesting field. In many ways it is the perfect field for EEs, since it covers just about everything that is electrical engineering and includes almost nothing that is not. To understand radar systems one needs to understand electromagnetic wave propagation, electronics, antennas, amplifiers, signal processing (a lot of signal processing) and computing hardware. As in almost all technical fields the computing piece is becoming more and more important, since the advances in speed and reduced size and power of the electronics, combined with advances in computational intelligence, are making possible applications that no one would have thought possible 10 or 20 years ago. Radar is also a pretty weird field to study from the academic side, since most of the applications to date have been in the military and defense world, and not being in that environment all the time one is never sure if the theoretical work is fully relevant to real applications. That hasn’t stopped me from moving ahead (in fits and starts, admittedly) and it hasn’t stopped some of my colleagues outside of academia from showing interest in my work over the years.

Conferences like this are a nice mix of the technical and the personal, and often drive home the point that it is the people that get the work done. On the personal side there were two very nice moments for me. One was seeing Dr. Marco La Manna, my first PhD student at Michigan Tech, present our joint paper on hybrid-MIMO radar signal processing. Marco is just starting out his career as a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He did a fine job with the presentation and fielded questions well; I was happy and proud of him. On the other end of the career arc, one my first PhD students back at Washington University, Dr. Frank Robey, was recognized for being elevated to IEEE Fellow status. Frank is my first PhD student to reach this milestone, so again I was happy and proud. I made IEEE Fellow myself back in 2010, and ironically our joint work that was part of Frank’s PhD dissertation played a big role in that. Our paper “An Adaptive Matched Filter Detector” published in the IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems in 1990 with two other authors, is my most-cited paper, and Frank is the first author. Frank has gone on to a very distinguished career as a radar engineer for MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and he knows a lot more about how radar really works than I ever will. I was Frank’s advisor for four years, but he has been my advisor ever since. It is great to see him get the recognition he deserves.

Coming to a conference like this is like putting on an old shoe. There is a familiar cast of characters: the curmudgeon who stands up and says that your work was done 50 years ago, the young engineer who is nervous and shy, the older seasoned engineer with too many slides, and the guy who gets unnecessarily positioned about the superiority of one technology over another. There are an awful lot of talks that appear to be a new mix of a lot of old concepts and buzzwords, and one is never quite sure if the speaker is really moving the state of the art forward or just reinventing the wheel. What is clear is that technological progress never moves in a straight line. There is a lot of going around and around in circles as the level of understanding in a technical community reaches critical mass to actually make something new happen.

I couldn’t help but notice one change in the conference dynamic which is a result of the ubiquitous smart phone. There is a lot of good conversation in the hallways as there always is, but there were also a lot of people off to the side checking their texts and e-mail. A lot of people were doing the same during the talks, usually at the back of the room when the talk got a little boring. I caught myself doing it too! Staying fully present in this environment is actually quite difficult, for me anyway, and cell phone addiction does not help.

A conference like this can be considered a success if one comes away with at least one new idea or the recognition that the field has changed in some significant way. The most striking thing for me was a presentation on the Google Soli project, which is putting micro-radars into small personal devices like smart watches, to track finger and hand gestures as part of a user interface. Just do a search on “Google Soli” and you can see all about it; it is very cool. This project demonstrated for me the potential that exists in the commercial world for moving technology forward. Even though I did not see much in this conference about automotive radar, it did make me think that there could be a lot of advances coming to support autonomous vehicles also. Given our level of interest in robotics, control, and automation in the Michigan Tech ECE Department it would probably be worth my while to find out as much as I can. The presentation itself on the Google Soli project totally raised the bar in terms of speaker polish and audio-visual aids. It put the rest of us PowerPoint hackers on notice that we need to raise our game if we are going to stay competitive.

Back in the office next week, and with luck it will be spring in the Keweenaw. Hope springs eternal, as it does at the beginning of every summer, that some of the inspirations from this week will turn into concrete results before the start of a new school year.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: That’s a Wrap

Duane Bucheger, ECE Professor of Practice
Duane Bucheger, ECE Professor of Practice

Feliz Cinco de Mayo from sunny Houston, Texas, where I am attending the spring off-site meeting of the College of Engineering External Advisory Board. Many thanks to board member Paul Dean for hosting us here at his facility at Dow Chemical. After our business meeting wraps up today, we will take part in an alumni social event for all Houston-area Huskies at a nearby restaurant.

Today is the last day of the “academic year pay period” which extends from two weeks before classes start in the fall, to one week after they end in the spring. Officially that means that, at Michigan Tech, summer starts next week. (There is a little cruel irony here in that we don’t even have leaves on our trees yet, but that will come shortly.) This is a good time for us to take stock of how we did over the past year, and taking a look at next year. We had our last faculty meeting of the year on Tuesday, and I made just such a report, which I will summarize here.

Congratulations to Assistant Professors Lucia Gauchia, Zhaohui Wang, and Jeremy Bos, on being reappointed to new two-year terms. Profs. Gauchia and Wang are entering their third term (years 5-6) and Prof. Bos is entering his second (years 3-4).

The past academic year, including Summer 2016, Fall 2016, and Spring 2017, we graduated 10 PhD students, 121 MS students, and 133 BS students. These numbers are up for us in all categories, especially for the graduate students. We are proud of all our graduating students, and wish them the best as they begin their careers. For next year we have 190 deposits for new undergraduate students, so we could be looking at yet another increase in undergraduate enrollment, even after our 8% growth this year. The data I have make it very difficult to predict the graduate enrollment for next year, so I am not even going to venture a guess on that one.

In talking about the teaching program, I always like to point out faculty members who do a great job in the classroom. One of the calculations I do involves student course evaluations and class sizes simultaneously. Without going into the details of the arithmetic, some faculty members who come out very well by that metric are Glen Archer, Mike Roggemann, Ashok Ambardar, and Lucia Gauchia. Looking at student course evaluations alone, for the smaller to medium-size classes, I see outstanding performance from Ashok Ambardar, Aurenice Oliveira, and Kit Cischke for undergraduate classes, and Sumit Paudyal, Mike Roggemann, and Lucia Gauchia for graduate classes.

We graduated 10 PhD students this year, which exactly meets our target of 10 per year, or 30 over the 3-year strategic planning period. The total over the past three years was 19, so the latter target was not met. However, looking ahead I count 3 PhD students who have already defended their dissertation but did not graduate for one reason or another, and 3 more that are defending in May. So, our PhD students are moving through the pipeline, and that is a good sign.

My projection for the research expenditures in ECE Department for this fiscal year, ending on June 30, is $2.0M. If that is correct, it will be down from $2.45M last year, but about average for us over the past few years. This is on the low side relative to our peers, for our size faculty and PhD program, and something that we continue to work on. One can reasonably ask why we even report such statistics, since the funding is not nearly as important as the quality and the impact of the work. The answer is (or my answer is) that dollars are fungible; everyone knows what a dollar is and what it is worth. The research expenditures in a department are a very simple “proxy metric” for the size of the research program, and all deans and department chairs report them (at least when we are talking to each other – read into that what you want.) The quality and impact of the work, as important as it is, is much harder to quantify. One argument is, if you can convince someone to pay for it then the work must be important. Ultimately the reputation of the department and the individual faculty members is based on intellectual and scholarly contributions, but such reputations take a long time to develop. So, for reporting short-term results research expenditures continue to be the easy way out.

A few other acknowledgements are in order:

Kudos to Assistant Professors Lucia Gauchia and Zhaohui Wang on their NSF CAREER awards, and to Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos for both his AFOSR Young Investigator Award and for leading the effort to get us into the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge. I wrote extensively about all of this in an earlier post but it bears repeating.

Prof. Bruce Mork simultaneously had the most research expenditures this fiscal year and taught very large graduate courses in power systems. Bruce’s graduate course in power system protection in the semester that just ended had nearly 100 students, which could be classified as a success disaster were it not for the fact that he manages it very well (and we threw a lot of graduate TAs at the laboratory sections). Many thanks to Bruce to setting an example in research funding and attracting MS students to the department.

Associate Chair Glen Archer was recognized in the Dean’s Teaching Showcase for his outstanding work in EE3010, our “service” course in electronic circuits and instrumentation for non-majors, his guidance as the faculty advisor for both the Blue Marble Security Enterprise and Robotics System Enterprise, and his service as the supervisor for all the lab TAs in the department. Glen is indispensable to me personally in all matters of departmental administration, and is totally committed to the success of the ECE Department. It is a pleasure to work with him.

Prof. Shiyan Hu is leading the way in departmental visibility in the area of professional service. He led the establishment of a new IEEE Technical Committee on Cyber-Physical Systems; he is the co-Editor-in-Chief of the new IET Journal on Cyber-Physical Systems; he has established two new IEEE workshops; he is an Associate Editor for three IEEE Transactions. As we grow the department activity in the areas of robotics, control, and automation, this recognition on the national and international scene in cyber-physical systems is extremely valuable, and I thank Shiyan for all his hard work.

Most years I like to recognize an individual departmental staff member for outstanding service. This year I just want to make the point that our entire staff, those with office, technical, and advising responsibilities, do a fantastic job and work well together as a team to move the department forward. Many thanks to Lisa Hitch, Michele Kamppinen, Joan Becker, Judy Donahue, Trever Hassell, Chito Kendrick, Chuck Sannes, and Mark Sloat for everything you do.

Finally, this week we are saying goodbye to Professor of Practice Duane Bucheger, who is leaving after six years of being in charge of the Senior Design program. Duane was a tireless advocate for bringing an industry perspective to our undergraduate educational programs, and in the process he sparked quite a few lively discussions in the department. We didn’t always agree on everything but I almost always learned something from our conversations and certainly I appreciated his perspective. Like all of us, Duane wants to make Michigan Tech a better place, and he may well have the opportunity to keep doing that in a different capacity; the plans are uncertain. Duane, I thank you for all your hard work, and wish you all the best.

Have a great summer everyone!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


FWF: A Special 50th Anniversary

ECE Academy inductee Patricia (Pat) Anthony, BSEE 1967
ECE Academy inductee Patricia (Pat) Anthony, BSEE 1967

Welcome to another Monday morning edition of FWF. As was the case earlier this month, all the action last week took place at the end of the week, so I needed the weekend to catch my breath. But what a week it was: final exams, commencement, and a very special recognition ceremony in the ECE Department.

The spring commencement ceremony was held Saturday morning in the hockey arena at the Student Development Complex. This is always a wonderful celebration and I love being a part of it. This spring the department sent off 7 PhD students, 76 MS students, and 92 undergraduates, and most of them were there to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. These are some pretty big numbers for us, especially the graduate students, and that contributed a little bit to the ceremony being some 3 hours long this year. Here’s a little confession: on Friday a number of guests in the department asked me how many students we were graduating, a number that someone in my position would know, one would think. This happens every year and I am always caught short. I usually don’t know until I open my commencement program and start counting!

One of those students was Marco La Manna, my first PhD graduate at Michigan Tech. Marco did his PhD dissertation in radar signal processing, and is now a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a very nice moment to be a part of Marco’s hooding ceremony, and I know the same is true for all of our other PhD graduates and their advisors. Growing the PhD program is a key component of our departmental strategic plan, so being able to make an individual contribution to that effort was very gratifying. The personal and professional relationship that I have developed with Marco and his wife Samantha over the past few years is equally satisfying.

The main event for me this year was not commencement itself but rather a special event that took place the day before and rolled right into commencement. This year we recognized the first woman graduate of the ECE Department, Patricia Anthony, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her graduation in 1967. Pat was inducted into the ECE Academy on Friday afternoon, in a well-attended ceremony in the social area on the 5th floor of the EERC.

Pat came to Michigan Tech in 1963 following graduation from high school in Grandville, Michigan. She entered with interests in math and science, as one might imagine, and while here she was VP of the Lambda Beta sorority, a DJ at the Wadsworth Hall radio station, and was a member of the U.S. Army ROTC auxiliary, the Silver Stars. She graduated from Michigan Tech in 1967 with the degree Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, the first woman to do so at Tech. Immediately after graduation Pat took a position with IBM, where she spent most of her career. Her first assignment was in Kingston, NY, as a diagnostic engineer for large mainframe computers. She later transferred to Detroit as a systems engineer working in data communications. She become well-known within IBM as an expert in the area, and later took on responsibility for teaching data communications management to IBM customers. Her later assignments were in Dallas, Tampa, and Midland. Throughout her professional career Pat found time for community service activities, including Junior Achievement, United Way, and the Girl Scouts.

Again, one would think that someone in my position would have been aware of Pat’s story for a long time, but in fact I did not know about it until I received an e-mail this past January from her brother, Col. Stephen Anthony (USAF retired), nominating her as a distinguished graduate. At first I did not believe that the first woman graduate of the department would have been as late as 1967, but I checked with Brenda Rudiger, head of Michigan Tech Alumni Relations, and indeed it was true. Brenda also pointed out that this was Pat’s 50th anniversary year. That set everything in motion which eventually led to this weekend’s events. Not only was Pat honored in the ECE Department, she was recognized briefly by the provost during the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday morning, and she attended commencement in the presidential skybox and got a shout-out from President Mroz in his opening remarks.

Pat was inducted into the ECE Academy on Friday afternoon, in a ceremony that was unusual for us for recognizing a single individual. We had a number of speakers lined up, all of whom were insightful, inspirational, and brief: Jackie Huntoon, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs; Wayne Pennington, Dean of the College of Engineering; Martha Sloan, Professor Emerita in ECE and the first woman president of the IEEE; Linda Ott, Professor and former Chair of the Department of Computer Science; Glen Archer, Associate Chair of the ECE Department; and Rachel Kolb, Treasurer of the Michigan Tech student branch of the Society of Woman Engineers. In one way or another, everyone spoke to the value of pioneers like Pat in paving the way for other women in STEM fields. Pat herself got the last word, and recounted her experiences at Tech, her experiences in industry, and in an emotional closing she touched on the importance of service activities like Junior Achievement that encourage young people of all stripes to pursue their dreams.

One thing that really struck me about Pat’s remarks was how extraordinarily generous she was to the male professors in the EE Department in the 1960s who simply did not know what to make of a women engineering student. It would be easy to dismiss these men as dinosaurs, but Pat chose a different path. She realized that these were men who were raised in an earlier generation by both their fathers and their mothers to treat women in a certain way, and a woman in the engineering classroom was disruptive to their worldview. Pat was able to persevere in spite of their resistance, and in the end her talent and skill won the day. One could probably make the argument that being able to see the world through the eyes of another is a highly valuable interpersonal skill, and one that Pat used to her advantage as she moved up through IBM. (Note: I realize full well that one should only take this argument so far.)

An event like this, recognizing the first woman graduate of the EE Department, gives us the opportunity to reflect on where we have come in the past 50 years with regard to women enrollment in STEM fields. To this day we still struggle in the ECE Department, with undergraduate female enrollment hovering around 10%. I believe in my heart that we can and should do a better job of attracting more young women into ECE. At the same time, however, I have a deep admiration and respect for the pioneers like Pat who have struggled against the odds and have come out ahead. I feel the same way about the extraordinary women that I have met in the Presidential Council of Alumnae, the advisory group to President Mroz, all of whom have become leaders in industry and civic affairs. Female students at Michigan Tech are represented in student leadership positions campus-wide in numbers much higher than their proportion of the undergraduate population, and that has been true in the ECE Department as well. There is a spirit of Sisu in the Husky women students and alumnae that sets them apart, on campus and in their careers, and being here in small numbers probably has a lot to do with that. I am not suggesting for a second that we should slow down our efforts to bring more women into ECE, nor should we ever tolerate ANY attitude that would make the ECE Department less than fully welcoming, inclusive, and comfortable for all students (that goes for faculty and staff too.) I guess I am just being somewhat wistful and counting myself as lucky for having had the opportunity to get to know the amazing women like Pat who have been, and continue to be, on the leading edge of the movement to change the face of electrical and computer engineering.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


FWF: Mobility @ Tech

FWF-image-2-20170424 The first part of this FWF double feature almost didn’t get written because there were so many events and activities in the ECE Department that I had to attend to. This second part almost didn’t get written because I was lying in bed binge-watching Season 3 of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”. This highly entertaining and astonishingly vulgar parody of start-ups in “the valley” is LOL funny, especially for electrical and computer types like us. I am not certain that all the counter-culture stereotypes and situations bear full resemblance to reality, but I do have to imagine that there is a seamy underbelly to the tech innovation culture that is usually held up as the paragon of realized human potential, even in this very blog. Season 4 starts this week!

But, back to matters closer to home. The highlight of this past week at Michigan Tech, from my point of view, was a half-day event held on Thursday in the lobby of the Rozsa Center called the “Mobility Summit.” This was an event that came together after discussions earlier in the semester involving Adrienne Minerick, Associate Dean for Research and Innovation in the College of Engineering, Pasi Lautala, faculty member in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Michigan Tech Transportation Institute, and yours truly. I have to admit, I wasn’t very much help once the ball got rolling, but Adrienne and Pasi did a fabulous job and I would consider it a big success.

“Mobility” is the new buzzword that describes everything having to do with the movement of people and things. It includes vehicles of all different kinds, transportation infrastructure, transportation automation including autonomous vehicles and vehicular communication networks, human factors and human-machine interfaces, and all the changes in society resulting from disruption in ride-sharing, alternative vehicle ownership models, and public transportation. This entire field is very important to the state of Michigan, due to our history in the automobile industry, our existing strong talent base in engineering, and our desire to leverage our advantage to remain a world leader in all things having to do with transportation. There are many people downstate in government and industry who see mobility as the key to economic development, and re-development, in our state and in the region, and I would agree with them.

Because mobility is important to the state of Michigan, it is important to Michigan Tech. Several of us decided that it would be a good idea to start pulling together all the expertise across campus, just to get a better sense of how much we actually have going on. There are two compelling reasons to do this, one internal and one external. The internal reason is that we all need to be aware of what our colleagues in other departments are doing, so that we can look for synergies and perhaps begin to develop a unified vision. The external reason is, if Michigan Tech really does have a strong collective presence in mobility, then we need to brand it and make sure the whole world knows about it.

The good news is that Michigan Tech really does have a lot to offer in mobility, and this became abundantly clear at the Summit on Thursday. The centerpiece of the Summit was a series of short (like 2-minute) presentations by some 18 researchers from 6 different departments, followed by a poster session where people could follow up with focused one-on-one technical conversations. The departments that got the most exposure were Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering, but it was surprising to see the level of activity in other corners of campus as well. In this sense the primary objective of the Summit was met. I found that our biggest strengths are in controls and communications, and the expertise in those areas is absolutely not limited to one department.

In addition to us talking to ourselves, we had two distinguished visitors with two stimulating keynote addresses: Paul Rogers, Director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, Michigan, and Kirk Steudle, Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Both spent the bulk of their time talking about the development of autonomous vehicle technology. From Dr. Rogers we learned that the Army has been working on military autonomous vehicles for quite a while, and developing technologies that may have an impact on the development of commercial autonomous vehicles. From Dr. Steudle we learned that Michigan is ahead of the curve, legislatively speaking, in creating the environment for the development of autonomous vehicles, particular with regard to testing on public roads. Both speakers advocated a stronger and more visible role for Michigan Tech in mobility, and offered advice on how we might get there.

The main takeaways for me were 1) yes, Michigan Tech has a lot to offer the state in mobility, and 2) yes, we will need to work together across campus to develop a comprehensive strategy, both for collaboration and for branding. The third takeaway is more specific to the ECE Department, and which is in the eye of the storm when it comes to moving autonomous technology forward. Dr. Rogers said it best, perhaps unintentionally, when he presented a slide showing where the breakthroughs are needed to make autonomous vehicles a reality. The slide included things like artificial intelligence, big data, radar, lidar, image processing, communication networks – in fact, every single thing he showed comes from the worlds of electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science. Powertrain engineering was conspicuously absent from the discussion. Granted, there is a lot of powertrain work to be done if the transition to all-electric vehicles happens at the same time as the transition to autonomous vehicles, but even there, there is plenty of work for electrical engineers. My point here is that while across-campus collaboration can and must happen if Michigan Tech is to be seen as a major player in mobility, the center of gravity for mobility research and development must shift at the same time. I am happy to help make that happen, as best I can.

This coming week is Final Weeks at Michigan Tech, and commencement happens on Saturday. It is an exciting, wonderful time (commencement, not finals) and you will read all about it here. Stay tuned.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


FWF: News from Week 13

Casey Strom, 2017 Carl J. Schjonberg Award for Outstanding ECE Undergraduate Student, along with his wife Becky
Casey Strom, 2017 Carl J. Schjonberg Award for Outstanding ECE Undergraduate Student, along with his wife Becky

Welcome to a special double feature edition of FWF. I am playing catch-up this weekend, in my attempts to write one column per week, not always successful. This is the busiest time of the year at Michigan Tech, so there is plenty to write about, but sometimes doing stuff gets in the way of writing about it.

The week of April 10-14 is “Week 13” in the spring academic calendar. In the ECE Department, this is when the students wrap up their Senior Design and Enterprise projects and make their final presentations, on Thursday. Simultaneously, the ECE External Advisory Committee (EAC) is in town, from Wednesday afternoon to Friday noon. The timing of the EAC visit is no coincidence, as their primary mission in the spring meeting is help us judge the student presentations. The entire ECE faculty gets into the act as well, sitting in on the presentations and offering their feedback. For all of Thursday morning, from 8am to 1pm, we listened to student teams of 4-6 describe their various projects. Collectively we watched 26 different presentations spread out over 5 time slots and 6 venues.

My overall impression this year is that the presentations were quite good; there seems to be a gradual improvement in the quality of the oral communication skills and the level of comfort our students have with public speaking. If I were to have a concern, it would be that I wonder if we are doing enough to challenge our students with the electrical and computer engineering technical content. All of our Senior Design projects are industry-sponsored, and many of the Enterprise projects are as well. We are of course very proud of our relationships with our industry partners, and seek to do everything we can to ensure that they get the value they seek from supporting our educational programs. The trick is making sure that those needs include tough, interesting, electrical/computer engineering problems that require a concerted effort for several months on the part of our students to find a viable solution. The EAC echoed these concerns in our debriefing session on Friday, and it is something we will be taking a close look at next year.

As is to be expected there is a range of quality in the student projects, and the best ones are absolutely outstanding. Each year the EAC awards the Larry Kennedy Industry Innovation Award to the project they deem to be the very best. The award is named in honor of our recent EAC chair who was taken from us suddenly by a heart attack, two years ago, at a far too young age. This year’s award goes to the project titled “Surgical High Speed Drill Rotor Position via CAN bus” sponsored by the Stryker Corporation. Stryker is a medical device and equipment company headquartered in SW Michigan; this is their first Senior Design project in the ECE Department. The ECE faculty advisor is Trever Hassell and the Stryker point of contact is Keith Behnke, whom we also welcome to the EAC this year. The students on the team are Dan Bragg, Elliott Meese, Julio Saint-Felix Rodriguez, Hailey Trossen, and Yuguang Wang. My congratulations to everyone involved in the project – in terms of the scope of the project and the quality of the execution this is exactly what we hope for every year.

Senior Design Team 6 (Stryker) L-R: Julio Saint-Felix Rodriguez, Hailey Trossen, Elliott Meese, and advisor Trever Hassell. Missing from photo: Dan Bragg and Yuguang Wang
Senior Design Team 6 (Stryker) L-R: Julio Saint-Felix Rodriguez, Hailey Trossen, Elliott Meese, and advisor Trever Hassell. Missing from photo: Dan Bragg and Yuguang Wang

The award for best capstone project is just one of several awards given out at our Senior Banquet, which occurred the evening of Thursday, April 13, with student, faculty, and EAC members in attendance.

This year for the first time we recognized the many undergraduate students who serve the ECE Department in various capacities, some paid and some volunteer. These include participating in Fall Open House and Spring Preview days, telephone calling campaigns for student recruiting, departmental tours, and our Undergraduate Advisory Board. Some 18 students were presented with certificates. This community service by our students is highly valued and greatly appreciated by the department, and the recognition is long overdue. I plan to continue doing this at the Senior Banquet from here on out.

Recognition of Service to ECE
Recognition of Service to ECE

The Departmental Scholar Award is our departmental nominee for the Provost’s Award for Scholarship, given to a student who will be senior ranked in the following academic year, and who represents the very best in scholarship and leadership at Michigan Tech. The ECE Departmental Scholar for the 2016-2017 academic year is Sarah Wade, a double major in electrical engineering and computer engineering with an outstanding academic record and long list of extracurricular activities including being on the Nordic ski team. Sarah is a member of the Aerospace Enterprise, hosted in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics and is making significant contributions there as a systems engineering and technical lead. Many of our award-winning students over the years have been associated with the Aerospace Enterprise so they must be doing something right over there. Like all but one of the Departmental Scholars at Michigan Tech, Sarah did not win the Provost’s Award, but the competition was stiff and we were proud to have her represent ECE.

Sarah Wade, 2017 ECE Departmental Scholar
Sarah Wade, 2017 ECE Departmental Scholar

The Woman of Promise Award was created by the Presidential Council of Alumnae, an advisory group to President Mroz. It is intended to recognize those women at Michigan Tech who go “above and beyond” what is expected in terms of being a well-rounded student, with considerations of academic achievement, campus leadership, citizenship, and creativity. This year the ECE Department had such outstanding nominees that we decided to give two Woman of Promise Awards. The first went to Jenna Burns, a high-achieving electrical engineering major with a minor in Spanish, who also is a percussion section leader in the Pep Band, and who has really distinguished herself in service to the ECE Department. Our second Woman of Promise is Elizabeth “Libbey” Held, a double major in electrical and computer engineering, a minor in Spanish (is there a theme here?), and a near-perfect GPA. Libby was cited by several faculty members as someone who asks the most insightful questions in class and during office hours. My congratulations to both Jenna and Libbey. Both have a year to go, so I say keep up the good work!

Jenna Burns, 2017 ECE Woman of Promise
Jenna Burns, 2017 ECE Woman of Promise

Elizabeth (Libbey) Held, 2017 ECE Woman of Promise
Elizabeth (Libbey) Held, 2017 ECE Woman of Promise

Our top student achievement award is the Carl S. Schjonberg Award for the Outstanding Undergraduate Student in the ECE Department. This year’s award choice was in my opinion a slam-dunk and I made that opinion known during our faculty deliberations, which I usually stay out of. Casey Strom is a truly remarkable individual. He is what we would call a “non-traditional” student, meaning that he comes to our program with a fair amount of life experience already under his belt. He lives and works on a family farm in Calumet, has a large family already, and had his own surveying business at the time of his coming into the department. In spite of all these demands on his time, he completes all of his coursework in the ECE Department with near-perfect attendance, all homeworks completed on time, and many exams close to 100%. This guy is motivated like you wouldn’t believe, and on top of that he has the most cheerful can-do demeanor of any student I have ever met. Casey, you represent the best of everything we try to do in the ECE Department and I couldn’t be prouder to call you a Michigan Tech graduate.

Casey Strom, 2017 Carl J. Schjonberg Award for Outstanding ECE Undergraduate Student
Casey Strom, 2017 Carl J. Schjonberg Award for Outstanding ECE Undergraduate Student

The final award of the evening at the Senior Banquet is presented by the students in Eta Kappa Nu to their selection for the Professor of the Year. This year’s award goes to Duane Bucheger. Duane is our Professor of Practice who runs the Senior Design program and teaches courses in design fundamentals, electric circuits, and electronics. He has been in this position for six years, and during that time he has done an outstanding job of building up our space and equipment devoted to Senior Design on the 7th floor of the EERC. As anyone in the ECE Department can tell you, Duane is a strong and vocal advocate for making sure students are aware of what will be expected of them in industry, and for preparing them to enter that world. I am delighted to see the Eta Kappa Nu students recognize Prof. Bucheger for his efforts on their behalf; I think it is a fitting tribute for all his hard work. For a variety of reasons and by mutual agreement, Duane will be stepping down from this position at the end of the academic year. We wish him all the best and thank him for his many contributions to the ECE Department.

Duane Bucheger, HKN Professor of the Year, presented by Libbey Held
Duane Bucheger, HKN Professor of the Year, presented by Libbey Held

All of that was almost two weeks ago! One more post and I will be caught up – and maybe the snow will be gone.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University