Category Archives: Fridays with Fuhrmann

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Autonomous Huskies on the Move

autodrivechallengeIt has definitely not been a quiet week in Houghton. Some pretty exciting news in the ECE Department was made public, and I will share that with you shortly below. There was also some bittersweet news for the entire university, and I think it best if I lead with that. This past Wednesday, two days ago, our university president Glenn Mroz announced in an e-mail to the campus community that he was stepping down as president and returning to the ranks of the faculty, effective June 30, 2018. That date is over a year away, so there is plenty of time for an orderly transition in the administration, and also plenty of time for reflections and best wishes which I am certain will be ample as the date approaches. President Mroz has worked tirelessly on behalf of Michigan Tech and is much loved by the university community. The institution has made some important strides forward under his leadership. I will leave it at that (for now), and just add that we have an interesting year ahead of us.

Now on to the good news. On Wednesday it was announced that Michigan Tech is one of 8 universities in North America selected to participate in the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge. This is a collegiate competition, jointly sponsored by General Motors (GM) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), with the goal of having students design, build, and test a fully autonomous vehicle. The students will take an existing vehicle – a Chevy Bolt, donated as part of GM’s sponsorship – and outfit it with sensors, processing, and control strategies to make it autonomous, over a period of three years. It is an ambitious project, with an ambitious goal, and I couldn’t be happier that we will be a part of it.

There was a competition just to get into the competition. The Michigan Tech team that prepared the winning proposal was led by Prof. Jeremy Bos of the ECE Department, who worked closely with Prof. Darrell Robinette of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. There was also close cooperation with Rick Berkey of the Pavlis Honors College, who is responsible for much of the oversight of the Michigan Tech’s signature Enterprise Program. The reason behind the Pavlis participation is that the competition activity will take place in the Robotic Systems Enterprise, which is hosted in the ECE Department but which includes membership from other parts of campus, most notably ME-EM and Computer Science. Next year Prof. Bos will take over as faculty advisor for the Robotic Systems Enterprise, and AutoDrive will comprise a major portion of his teaching assignment.

The announcement was made on Wednesday with much fanfare at the SAE World Congress, a large technical conference and exposition for automotive engineers held at CoBo Hall in downtown Detroit. There was a big lunch for all the winning teams and then a ceremony, with speeches by representatives of GM and SAE and announcements of the winning teams with plenty of photo opportunities, for ourselves and for the press. It was a wonderful moment. SAE was extraordinarily generous with us and the other teams, paying for all the travel expenses to attend the conference and particularly the announcement event. There were four us on hand – Jeremy, Darrell, ME-EM chair Bill Predebon, and me.

We had a chance to meet the other teams; they are:

Kettering University
Michigan State University
University of Toronto
University of Waterloo
North Carolina A&T State University
Texas A&M University
Virginia Tech

I have a lot of respect for these other institutions and I know the competition will be stiff. I welcome the opportunity to see how Michigan Tech stacks up.

I am excited about this turn of events for several reasons. First off, I have been advocating for the past year or so for the ECE Department to have a larger footprint in the areas of the robotics, control, and automation. A lot has been coming together in this regard, e.g. the growth of the Robotic Systems Enterprise, some changes to the curriculum, and development of our research programs, but this may very well become our most visible activity in the area. I have to add, this is not just about ECE: it will be a team effort involving ECE, ME-EM, and CS. This is a great opportunity for these three units to show what can accomplished when we break down the silos a little bit and work toward a common goal. In doing this we will meet another objective of mine, which is to ensure that our work is beneficial to the state of Michigan and the larger Great Lakes region. I see a renaissance in the state that is driven in part by the development of new technologies surrounding the “mobility” area, which leverages the considerable engineering talent that already exists here. Engineers who can cross disciplinary boundaries among ME, EE, and CS are needed to keep this movement vital. I want Michigan Tech to be known as an institution that is doing its part for the economic growth and revitalization of the region, through both our research and through educational programs that meet the state’s workforce needs.

I also believe a program like the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge will do a lot to stir the imagination of new and prospective students at Michigan Tech. A lot of high school students that come to campus have experience in FIRST Robotics, and when they visit us the first thing they want to know is, what do we have going in robotics? Do we ever have an answer now: how would you like to be part of a team building a fully autonomous vehicle? The aspiring engineers in FIRST Robotics – and just yesterday I met a very capable and enthusiastic team at the Macomb Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Armada, Michigan – have the passion and the drive to see this project through to a successful conclusion as they mature as college students. I predict we are going to see another jump in enrollment in ECE and ME-EM as word of this competition gets around.

We see a lot in the popular press these days about autonomous vehicles and how quickly the technology is developing. I think this is the “moon shot” for the current generation. We may not know how we are going to get there, but it is pretty clear that we are going to get there one way or another. In analogy with the original moon shot in the 1960s and 1970s, this effort may be more valuable for new spin-off technologies that result than it is for the stated goal. If you think about it, what did we really accomplish in 1969? We put some men on the moon, they drove around in buggies, and collected some rocks – big deal. What was really launched in the NASA lunar missions was an entire electronics and computing industry, with far-reaching consequences leading right to present day and far beyond. The same may happen with autonomous vehicles, as entirely new paradigms for sensing, processing, and artificial intelligence give rise to new life-altering technologies that we cannot even imagine today.

When President Mroz issued his open letter to the campus community on Wednesday, he included this critically important statement: “I have no intention of allowing Michigan Tech to lose its forward momentum.” The AutoDrive Challenge is a perfect example of that forward momentum. There may be transitions and uncertainty in the university’s future, just as in the landscape of mobility technologies, but that is no reason to look to the future with anything less than optimism and a sense of wonder about the possible. I wish our AutoDrive team all the best of luck, and will do everything I can to support them. Game on!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Notes from the PhD Program

Prof. Elena Semouchkina with PhD students Saeid Jamilan and Navid Gandji
Prof. Elena Semouchkina with PhD students Saeid Jamilan and Navid Gandji

Here we are at the end of March, and the end of Week 11 in the academic calendar – one month to go until the end of the semester and commencement. The snow on campus is steadily disappearing, Mont Ripley is closed, and I have hung up my skis for the seasons. Out like a lamb, as they say. This is the calm before the storm, although for me it is not so calm as there is a lot of planning to do! I’ll be on the road next week, but after that we have the Design Expo, the meeting of our External Advisory Committee, final exams, all leading to commencement on April 29.

One area of the department that does see a flurry of activity at this time is the completion of the PhD dissertation defenses. These do not happen right at the end of the semester, as it is often the case that PhD candidates need to make some changes to their dissertations before they get to the final approval stage. We have two defenses this week and two next. I like to go to as many of the presentations as I can, although unfortunately I have to miss the ones next week. The ones I saw this week, both yesterday, were quite good.

It has been a pretty good year for PhD production, by our standards. Assuming all the remaining work is completed according to plan we will graduate 12 PhD students this academic year, which ties a record for us. Our departmental goal over the last 3-year period is to graduate 30 PhD students, or 10 per year. We hit that mark over the 2011-2014 time period, but will not make it this time – we only had 9 graduates total in 2015 and 2016. There are a lot of variables that affect PhD enrollment and completion, so we accept that and move forward.

Building and sustaining a PhD program in a department like ours, which has a long and distinguished record in undergraduate education, requires a concerted effort and a shift in the culture over the long haul. I believe the ECE Department is doing exactly that, and I am proud of the direction in which we are going and the gains that have been made.

At all universities, PhD training is intimately connected to research activity. I have heard it said that the PhD education is an “apprenticeship in research”, also that “you do not earn a PhD, you become one.” The process requires a great deal of commitment on the part of the student, who undertakes several years of an almost monastic existence while doggedly pursuing the goal of making an original and creative contribution to a (usually) narrowly-defined technical area. It requires a lot of effort on the part of the academic advisor as well. Unlike a lot of other teaching roles in higher education, the relationship between the advisor and the student is often deeply personal and almost certainly unique. For this reason, people often think of an academic “lineage” defined by the chain of advising relationships, much like a family tree. Believe it or not, I can trace my academic lineage back to Fourier! (Aside: many years ago, it was pointed out to me that my academic advisor, Bede Liu, had an academic lineage that went back to Fourier. I thought that was cool but it was a full 24 hours before it dawned on me that as a result, the same was true for me.)

The decision to have a viable PhD program that is recognized nationally and internationally begins with a shared understanding of why we do it in the first place. As described above a PhD program is certainly connected to research, but I have long maintained that the two are not synonymous. A research program is the responsibility of the faculty, who set the direction for the research, are carrying out their own research, and who are working hard to build up a program with sustainable external funding. While the PhD students are participating in the research, they are really here to learn the craft from their advisors. An analogy I like to think of is that of a master musician and a student in the conservatory: the master must be an accomplished performer in his or her own right, and perform in public regularly, while at the same time training the student in the art.

This then raises the question, why do we do research? My answer on this one is simple: we do research to make the world a better place. Any other reason, such as having a research program in order to justify having a PhD program, will doom the research organization to failure or at best mediocrity. The department faculty need to be enthusiastic about, and committed to, their scholarship. In this way they will lead by example and produce outstanding PhD graduates, who in turn will do the same in their own careers. I am happy to say that, from what I have seen this week, the Michigan Tech ECE faculty feel the same way.

It is often the case that university and department rankings are heavily influenced by the size and productivity of research and PhD programs. Since prospective students, including high-school students, often use such rankings in their decisions about what schools to attend, one could easily imagine a motivation to build up a research program for the sole purpose of attracting undergraduate students. This would be misguided and we need to guard against it. This is not to say that quality research programs and quality undergraduate programs are in conflict in some sort of zero-sum game; far from it. The best universities are the ones in which the faculty are passionate about their scholarship and are effective in communicating that passion to the young minds that pass through their gates. The ideal of the teacher-scholar is something we should all be striving toward. It is not easy, and we do not always live up to that ideal, but if we keep the goal out in front of us at all times the university will be the better for it.

It is exciting and rewarding to be at a place like Michigan Tech, where we have proud traditions from the past but also are moving forward to build new ones for the future. My congratulations in advance to all our PhD graduates and their advisors in the 2016-2017 academic year.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Welcome Future Huskies!

FWF-image-20170317Our ability to make an impact on the lives of young people, and on economic development and workforce training in the state of Michigan and nationwide, depends critically on university efforts to spread the word about the value of a Michigan Tech education and to get students in the front door. Today I would like to acknowledge the outstanding work done by John Lehman, Associate Vice President for Enrollment and University Relations, Allison Carter, Director of Admissions, and their entire team of university recruiters who spend countless hours on the road attending high school college fairs, talking to students and high school counselors, and serving as our front line ambassadors for the university. We could not do our job if they did not do theirs, and they do it very well.

As you might imagine many of the efforts in the Office of Admission have to be coordinated with the academic departments such as ECE, where we hold meetings with prospective students and their families, make our own pitch about undergraduate programs in electrical and computer engineering, and give tours of our department facilities. The point of contact for student recruiting in the ECE Department is Judy Donahue, our EE Undergraduate Academic Advisor. Student recruiting has become a big part of Judy’s everyday workload and she does an absolutely fabulous job with it. We are fortunate to have Judy be the face of the ECE Department for so many students who are facing critically important decisions about their future. Judy gets a lot of valuable support from CpE Undergraduate Academic Advisor Trever Hassell, ECE Associate Chair Glen Archer and a cadre of cheerful and enthusiastic ECE students who help out with department tours, demonstrations, and phone campaigns.

The main event in the recruiting season this spring is Preview Day, which is tomorrow (Saturday, March 18). This is the day when we invite prospective students and their families to campus, and put on a big show at both the university and department levels. Part of the day takes place at a central location, the Memorial Union Ballroom, where all the academic departments have tables set up in an exhibit hall format, and folks can wander around to collect information and engage in conversation. Part of the day takes place in the departments themselves, where we stage tours and demonstrations, again with lots of help from our students. As usual Judy Donahue is coordinating all the efforts for the ECE Department. This year has turned out be unusual in the sense that we have a very large number of students signed up to tour the ECE Department, much more than in previous years. Some might call this situation a “success disaster” but it’s a good problem to have, and we can handle it. The large response this year might be dumb luck, but I like to think that it is a result of efforts by us and others, calling attention to all the career opportunities in electrical and computer engineering and the uniqueness of our community at Michigan Tech. We will be ready and are delighted to welcome so many future engineers!

One of the activities that supports student recruiting in the ECE Department is a design competition among current students that we call MasterpiECE Mania. I started this a few years ago, when I noticed that several academic departments had all sorts of cool gadgets and gizmos on their tables at recruiting events, and ECE did not have much to show other than paper handouts. I challenged the students to come up with interesting designs and products that don’t necessarily have to do anything useful, but are fun to look at or listen to, and show off the ingenuity of students in electrical and computer engineering. (Aside: “ingenuity” and “engineering” come from the same root in Latin “ingenium” so I guess that was redundant.) We use the winning entries in the larger recruiting events like tomorrow’s Preview Day. The competition itself is organized and run by our IEEE student branch, and this year our judging was just last night. I want to thank Chrissy Kaub, the IEEE student branch president, and her support team for making it happen this year; also I want to thank the ECE faculty who stepped up to serve as judges – Jeremy Bos, Roger Kieckhafer, and Warren Perger. We had nine entries. The winner came from the team of Nick Dubiel and Darren McCaul who created an electric arc audio speaker, where music is played using an electric arc between two high-voltage electrodes about an inch apart. If you are on the tour, you will see it (and hear it) tomorrow! Since we started this competition, I have been really impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness of our students, or at least a certain segment of them. It pains me to admit this, but I was never much of a tinkerer when I was a kid, so seeing what these students come up with is rather humbling!

Speaking of competitions, there is another big event on campus tomorrow night. The Michigan Tech Huskies men’s hockey team will be playing one game against the Bowling Green Falcons for the WCHA championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Division 1 men’s hockey tournament. This is the first time that a WCHA championship game will be hosted at the MacInnes Ice Arena, and everyone around campus is pretty excited. I rented a skybox for the ECE Department so we will all be there having a big party and hopefully bringing home a Michigan Tech victory. Go Huskies!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Thank You Dave!

FWF-image-20170310Greetings to all from the road. I have been out of town for a little over a week, on a trip that combined a little bit of work and a little bit of vacation. Actually a lot of vacation. Last weekend and in the early part of this week I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, seeing if my skills in downhill skiing, developed over many evenings and weekends at Mont Ripley, would carry over to a larger – much larger – resort in the Rockies. I am happy to say that they did; I had a wonderful time! From what I can tell the average skill level at Mont Ripley is higher than what it was at Steamboat. That’s because a lot of the people who go to a faraway mountain resort are duffers like me who go there for vacation, and are not regular expert skiers. I felt right at home. I can also report that, after nine years in the U.P., my tolerance for cold seems to be higher than that of the average flatlander who goes to Colorado. That’s a good thing, because from what I understand I’ll be coming home to some of the coldest weather of the winter.

The work-related part of my trip took me out to the San Francisco Bay Area, which I often visit during spring break. It was there that I had the chance to visit Dave House, the namesake of the professorship I now hold and my mentor for the time I have been at Michigan Tech. I had both a private meeting with Dave, and I attended a Michigan Tech alumni event that Dave hosted at the tasting room for the small winery that is part of his beautiful home and property in Saratoga. The setting for the latter event has a stunning view of all of Silicon Valley, and was a perfect setting for the gathering of about 50-60 people. Dave and his wife Devyani were gracious hosts, keeping the conversations lively and providing some of the best food and wine in California. Everyone had a lovely evening.

Reflecting on this short trip this morning, I thought it would be a good time to acknowledge Dave for everything he has meant to Michigan Tech and to me personally. Dave is a 1965 graduate of the Michigan Tech EE Department. He began his career working on radar systems for Raytheon in the Boston area, where he completed an MS degree at Northeastern University. He later switched over to computer engineering, and moved to California to begin a long career at Intel where he moved up the ranks from hardware engineer, to engineering manager, and eventually to Vice-President reporting to the late Andy Grove. He was responsible for the “Intel Inside” campaign which made a household name of the otherwise invisible processing hardware that drives untold numbers of personal computers and laptops. After a couple of other high-visibility positions in Silicon Valley, Dave is now the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Brocade, a market leader in optical networking equipment.

What sets Dave apart from so many other successful innovators in Silicon Valley is his unwavering commitment to giving back to the institutions where he got his start, both Michigan Tech and Northeastern. He has been extraordinarily generous in terms of both his financial gifts, and more valuable still his gift of time and effort to move the institution forward. The professorship that I hold is one of four that he has endowed at Michigan Tech. Two of the others are held by the Dean of the College of Engineering and the Chair of the Department of Computer Science, respectively, and the fourth is split between Associate
Professors Wayne Weaver and Bo Chen. The professorships come with more than money; they come with regular advice and mentoring in management, leadership, and innovation for which Dave is an acknowledged master. When I first arrived at Michigan Tech, Dave and I spent the better part of a day together, going through what we jokingly refer to as “House
Training.” His efforts on behalf of Michigan Tech are not just for my benefit; he has worked hard with many other leaders at the university at all levels. His financial gifts go well beyond the professorships mentioned above; he is responsible for the founding of the Michigan Tech Research Institute in Ann Arbor, and he is providing support for visiting faculty in the newly formed Institute of Computing and Cybersystems. He was the Chairman of the Michigan Tech’s Generations of Discovery capital campaign that ran from 2006 to 2013 and raised over $215M for the university.

One of Dave’s goals over the past years has been to bring the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship one finds in Silicon Valley back to Houghton. These efforts including bringing teams of other executives and entrepreneurs from California to campus for meetings, panel discussions, and other events meant to raise awareness of where we need to be going, and to get feedback on who we are doing. Dave has been instrumental in instilling in many of us the importance of setting goals that are both meaningful and measurable. Many of his visits include “progress reports” where we get very specific about how we are doing relative to the metrics we are using to define success. The idea of such a goal-oriented approach to academics was new to me when I first arrived at this position, but now I find it perfectly natural and I can’t imagine doing business any other way.

Dave and I don’t always agree on everything, and sometimes he gives me a hard time when he thinks our progress is not what it ought to be, by our own standards. That’s the way it should be. There is always a good give and take, and he always lets you know where he stands.

Dave and I share a common vision: the best Michigan Tech that all of us working together can possibly create. I know I speak for many of us at Michigan Tech when I say: thank you Dave for everything you do!

Dan

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

p.s. while I am in the mood for thank-yous, let me add three others: 1) Tim Schulz, former ECE Department Chair and former Dean of the College of Engineering, who is responsible in large part for re-engaging Dave with Michigan Tech many years ago; 2) Gwen Caldwell, Dave’s very capable personal assistant whom I met for the first time last night and who has never been anything but perfectly friendly and professional, and finally 3) Adam Johnson, our unflappable and ultra-hip Michigan Tech “tour wrangler” for all the House-related activities on campus and in California.


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Spring Break

FWF-image-20170303-pic2Today is the Friday of Week 8 in the spring academic calendar, and last regular class day before spring break at Michigan Tech. Things are pretty quiet around campus, as many students and faculty members head out for a variety of activities elsewhere. At least, I assume that is the case: I am not on campus to observe, as I am on the road myself for a trip that is a little bit work and mostly vacation.

This day is a special one for me. It was on the Friday before spring break in 2008, nine years ago, that I first set foot on the Michigan Tech campus. Then-dean Tim Schulz picked me up at the airport late Thursday night, after his weekly hockey game, and dropped me off at the hotel; on Friday I spent the day on campus learning all about the ECE Department, and gave a technical seminar on my work on adaptive sensing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was where I wanted to be. Tim figured out how to push all my buttons. In addition to everything we did on campus, he arranged social events with people who would eventually become good friends, showing what a strong sense of community we have in our little town. He took me cross-country skiing on the Tech Trails, and we even went out to McLain State Park and walked around on Lake Superior ice! It must have been a colder winter than what we are having this year. Tim was a master recruiter and I have tried my best to follow his example in our faculty searches over the past nine years.

The halfway point in the semester (which was actually last week, not this one) means the conclusion of the course I teach, EE 1110 Essential Mathematics for Electrical Engineering. I sometimes struggle with balancing the competing responsibilities of teaching, research, and department administration, but on the teaching side I have found a good compromise by teaching this 1-credit course in a half-semester format. I stay in town in January and February, which is perfectly fine with me, and the second half of the semester is available for travel and other larger administrative tasks. This semester we had 144 students enrolled in EE1110, which makes it the largest course I have ever taught. With such a large class, I don’t get much of a chance to get to know many of the students personally, but I do enjoy taking a group of students with a diverse set of talents and abilities and doing what I can to get them ready for our regular EE curriculum. You’ll have to ask them if I was successful or not.

I am a big believer in the notion that, as a public institution, Michigan Tech has a responsibility to provide something of value to all our students, who come from all walks of life and all different levels of preparation and training. We don’t have the luxury of being ultra-selective, but I couldn’t be prouder of the job we are doing to prepare students for careers in engineering, whether they are class valedictorian or come from the middle of the pack in their high schools. I have designed EE1110 with this in mind. Students have three chances at the final exam. Some breeze through it on the first try, others study a bit more and are successful the second time. Some students need all three chances, and I don’t have a problem with that – I’m in favor of whatever they need to do to demonstrate mastery of the material before moving on.

With EE1110 behind me for this semester, I plan on spending time in March and April crafting our strategic goals and our strategic plan for achieving those goals. We do this on a three-year cycle, and this time I would like to have our plan in place before the start of the next academic year. The entire faculty will need to agree on the plan, so there will be a fair amount of discussion and wordsmithing before the final document is approved. I am optimistic this can be accomplished before the faculty go in all different directions in May. The biggest challenge will be doing this at the same time we are preparing for our ABET visit, which is coming up next fall. Never a dull moment!

The little bit of work alluded to in the first paragraph happens toward the end of next week, when I will be in California. The vacation part starts today. Happy spring break everyone!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Engineers, Go Fourth

FWF-image-20170224This week is Engineers Week, a national celebration of all things engineering, and as you might imagine there are a number of activities going on around campus that raise awareness of the field (like we need that here) and generally give us the opportunity to feel good about who we are and what we do. Although the ECE Department does not take a lead role in organizing the week’s activities, various corners of the department such as the Blue Marble Security Enterprise are participating. This past Wednesday was also the date of the spring Career Fair, when companies and organizations come to campus to recruit our students for co-ops, internships, and full-time jobs. The spring fair is always smaller than the one in the fall, but with 219 recruiting organizations on campus it is still respectable by anyone’s standards. As usual, a lot of companies are looking to hire electrical engineers and computer engineers, a theme I have touched on many times before. This weekend the fun will continue with a student-organized and student-led hackathon called Winter Wonderhack. We expect a fair number of Michigan Tech students, some students for other universities in the region, and maybe a few high school students too, on campus showing off their chops in creativity and invention.

This seems like a good week to talk about where technology is going, and the role that an organization like the ECE Department can play. I recently read the book “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” by Klaus Schwab, and thought I would offer a few thoughts about it.

Schwab is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of world leaders in government and industry held in Davos, Switzerland. This meeting draws a lot of heavy hitters – including, sometimes, the President of the United States – and as a result it gets a fair amount of press. The theme of the 2016 WEF meeting was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” and Schwab’s new book provides a succinct companion volume to that meeting. The concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been around for a while, and I have even used it for several years in some of my own presentations to prospective high school students and first-year students at Tech. The promotion of the idea through the WEF brings it to a higher level of visibility in industry, government, and in the public imagination.

The basic idea is that human society has been through a series of transformative periods in our history, brought about by technological innovations, that each time have fundamentally altered the way we live and work. The First Industrial Revolution (the one often taught in high school as THE Industrial Revolution) occurred in the period from 1760 to 1840, and is characterized as the change from human and animal labor to mechanized work, exemplified by the steam engine. The Second Industrial Revolution occurred around the turn of the 20th century, with the rise of mass production and assembly lines, made possible by the widespread use of electrical power. It was during this time that “action at a distance” became commonplace – one could burn a lump of coal at one place and turn on a light somewhere else. Or, one could tap a key in a telegraph office and information would instantaneously appear 50 miles away. Or, with the aid of refrigeration, food could be grown on a farm and days or weeks later consumed in the city. The Third Industrial Revolution, in the 1960s and 1970s is associated with the rise of computers, and the use of computers to automate many manufacturing and information processing tasks.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is, at its core, all about connectivity. While computer technology developed rapidly in the latter part of the 20th century, the tasks being performed were tasks that we were already doing. In contrast, the connected nature of all the computers and sensors in the 21st century is fundamentally altering our daily lives – not only how we do things, but what we want to do in the first place. The Internet is largest and most visible of this movement, but in truth the Internet is only just the beginning of this revolution. Now we are moving into the era of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) or the “Internet of Everything” where all the objects and devices in our lives, whether for personal use or for business, manufacturing, or process control, will be connected through one vast network of sensing, communication, and control. “Cyber-physical systems” is a term used to describe the convergence of digital and physical technology that is happening alongside the IoT.

One of the aspects of the current industrial revolution, which sets it apart from the previous three, is the speed at which technology is developed and subsequently adopted. The Internet has gone from an academic curiosity to the primary engine of communication and commerce in the space of 20 years. Amazon was founded in 1994, Google in 1998. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007, and now there are an estimated 2 billion smartphones worldwide. AirBnB and Uber were unknown 5 years ago, and are now household names. Right now autonomous vehicles are the subject of vigorous research and development, but according to many enthusiastic (and optimistic) advocates they could be on the roads by 2021. Imagine the day when autonomous vehicles are as common, and as accepted as normal, as the smartphone is today!

Klaus devotes much of the book to the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well he should. I imagine this is in keeping with the many discussions taking place at the World Economic Forum, as leaders grapple with all the implications of this revolution in their respective constituencies. I don’t have the space here to discuss all those implications at length, but I can say a few things about the impact on my own constituency: electrical and computer engineers at Michigan Tech. A good place to start is with the list of 23 “shifts”, as Klaus calls them in the appendix of the book, itself an outgrowth of a 2015 WEF survey report. These are the major technology trends associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and each associated with a “tipping point”, the point at which a technology moves from being a novelty to a necessity. They are:

1. Implantable Technologies
2. Our Digital Presence
3. Vision as the New Interface
4. Wearable Internet
5. Ubiquitous Computing
6. A Supercomputer in Your Pocket
7. Storage for All
8. The Internet of and for Things
9. The Connected Home
10. Smart Cities
11. Big Data for Decisions
12. Driverless Cars
13. Artificial Intelligence and Decision Making
14. AI and White-Collar Jobs
15. Robotics and Services
16. Bitcoin and the Blockchain
17. The Sharing Economy
18. Governments and the Blockchain
19. 3D Printing and Manufacturing
20. 3D Printing and Human Health
21. 3D Printing and Consumer Products
22. Designer Beings
23. Neurotechnologies

When I look at that list, and I cannot help but think – wow, there is a lot of work here for electrical and computer engineers. It is not exclusively ECE related technology, of course, but we will have our fingerprints all over it, probably more than any other discipline with the possible exception of computer science. This is precisely why I bring up the Fourth Industrial Revolution when speaking to young students with interests in STEM: this is what is coming, and the world needs you to make it happen.

I also notice in this list that, while on the surface it looks cheerful and optimistic, there are also a lot of technologies that could be subverted by those who seek to do harm to others. For this reason, cybersecurity will be a hugely important component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While he does not discuss security in the appendix, Schwab does cover it elsewhere, touching on the changing nature of conflict, cyber warfare, autonomous warfare, the militarization of space, and related topics.

The challenge for us in engineering education is to make sure that we are preparing students to enter this world. I see two complementary aspects to this. First, we must be certain that we continue to stress the fundamentals – after all, the laws of physics do not change (as I saw in an electronic product slogan tagline once, they are just more rigorously enforced.) Time spent learning the timeless truths of mathematics is never wasted. At the same time, we must be aware of these disruptive technologies and be certain that our students’ mastery of fundamentals is not diverted to the mastery of obsolete technology. We must also be certain that students have the skills, in the right proportion of depth and breadth, to be valuable not only for their expertise in a very narrow slice of technology but also for their broader understanding of the context for their expertise. For this reason, I am a believer in the “T-shaped” knowledge base that Robert Lucky alludes to in his column in the January 2017 issue of IEEE Spectrum – a deep specialty combined with broad understanding. Looking over Klaus’ list of 23, I would argue that, for our students, the horizontal arm of the T would encompass at least three major disciplines: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science. The vertical arm would be the particular specialty, which could dive deep into some sub-specialty within one of those three disciplines. I am convinced that someone with that combination would find a world of opportunity laid at their feet.

Klaus’ book is relatively short but it raises a lot of important points that can serve as the basis for many fruitful discussions. These are exactly the kinds of discussions that I hope that we will have here at Michigan Tech as we imagine our own future. After all, our informal slogan is “Create the Future” and that applies to the institution just as much as it does to our students. Institutions such as ours are the engine behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution and where it is headed is largely up to us. Will we be in the driver’s seat?

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Our Extraordinary Assistant Professors

FWF-image-3-20170217The life blood of any academic department is the faculty, and one of the keys to maintaining an intellectually healthy and vigorous faculty is the regular infusion of new talent and all the fresh ideas that come with it. I am happy to say that over the time that I have been here, the ECE Department has been fortunate to be able to bring in a number of new young faculty members, and doubly fortunate that they have been successful in so many different ways. Today I want to give a special shout-out to that side of our department.

By way of background, for those not completely familiar with the U.S. system, at most universities there are three ranks of tenured and tenure-track faculty: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor. Anyone with the word “Professor” in their title is expected to be recognized as a scholar in his or her respective field, and to be able to translate that scholarship into effective classroom teaching. The usual duties of someone in these ranks is said to include teaching, research, and service, and the allocation of time and efforts among these three legs of the academic stool can vary quite a bit. Assistant Professors are near the beginning of their academic careers; they usually hold the PhD degree and may have some prior experience such as a post-doctoral fellowship. They are said to be “tenure-track” meaning that they will be seeking tenure after some period of time, typically six years. Associate Professors are more mid-career, continuing on the successful path that was begun earlier, and perhaps exploring new ideas, research areas, and collaborations. Tenure, the guarantee of lifetime employment to successful faculty members, is usually granted at the time of promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. Professors are the well-established faculty members who have built a strong track record in research and teaching, and are recognized nationally and internationally for their scholarly contributions. Professors often take on leadership positions within in the department or the university as well.

In the ECE Department right now we have four faculty members at the rank of Assistant Professor. At this time last year we actually had seven, but three of those – Durdu Guney, Tim Havens, and Chee-Wooi Ten – we promoted from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor last spring. I was delighted that all three were able to run the tenure and promotion gauntlet and emerge successfully at the other end. I had thought that three in one year must be a record, until Martha Sloan informed me that she was in a group of six such faculty members many years ago! We are happy for this group, and they are continuing to make us proud just as I knew they would.

Our four current Assistant Professors, in no particular order, are Jeremy Bos, Lucia Gauchia, Zhaohui Wang, and Sumit Paudyal. It has been a great year for this group, and over the past month or so we have gotten some wonderful news which has prompted this week’s column. Collectively they have been awarded three early-career awards: two National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards, and one U.S. Air Force Young Investigator Program (YIP) award. These awards give young faculty members the time and resources to build a strong foundation in research. Their success reflects a lot of hard work, definitely a lot of perseverance, and a little bit of good luck too. Fortune favors the prepared mind.

Dr. Jeremy Bos is a 2013 PhD graduate of our own program, working (then) under the supervision of Dr. Michael Roggemann in atmospheric and statistical optics. He continued in this line of research for two years under an Air Force post-doctoral fellowship on the island of Maui, before returning to Michigan Tech in 2015 to take up his current position. He is the recipient of a three-year Air Force YIP award, titled “Imaging Theory and Mitigation in Extreme Turbulence-Induced Anisoplanatism.” His research will help the Air Force to see objects over long distances through turbulent media, such as the atmosphere, which causes light paths to bend in unpredictable ways and wreaks havoc with conventional optics and image reconstruction. Jeremy also has a separate and practically unrelated technical interest area, namely robotics, control, and automation, which stems for his time as a engineer at GM prior to coming to graduate school. He is playing a critical role in helping the ECE Department develop a strategy for expanding our robotics programs, all the way from graduate research, to undergraduate teaching, to pre-college outreach. It’s like having two faculty members in one!

Dr. Lucia Gauchia came to Michigan Tech in 2013, originally from Spain and most recently (at the time) a visiting position at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario. Her area of interest is in energy storage systems, which covers the different ways that we can store energy that has been generated electrically so that it can be used at a later time. Utilities and consumers need energy storage to balance the generation of electrical power with the demands of electrical loads – often the two are out of sync. Because energy conversion is of interest to both electrical engineers and mechanical engineers, Lucia holds a joint appointment in the ECE Department and the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech. She holds an endowed position, the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Assistant Professor of Energy Storage Systems. Her cross-listed graduate course in energy storage systems is increasingly popular each year, and she gets very high student course evaluations for it. Lucia is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award, titled “An Ecologically Inspired Approach to Battery Lifetime Analysis and Testing.” She plans to borrow ideas from lifecycle analysis and population dynamics to understand better the performance and potential failure modes of batteries and battery packs, an increasingly important component of utility power systems, automobiles, and a myriad of other applications of electrical power.

Dr. Zhaohui Wang also came to Michigan Tech in 2013, having just completed her PhD with a very successful group at the University of Connecticut. Her work is in underwater acoustic communication networks. She had originally came in on a “computer engineering” search, but she has proven herself to be an able contributor in signals and systems as well. She teaches courses in wireless sensor networks, detection and estimation theory, and for the first time this semester our required undergraduate course in communication theory. Because of her interest in underwater acoustics, she is a member of the Great Lakes Research Center (GLRC) and has a large and expanding laboratory there. Zhaohui is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award, titled “Online Learning-Based Underwater Acoustic Communication and Networking” which will support much of her research for the next five years. She plans to develop methods for communication among multiple underwater surveillance platforms that take advantage of real-time modeling of underwater acoustic communication channels, which are dynamic and can be very complicated. This is an ambitious project combining elements of communication theory, signal processing, and physics. I can’t resist mentioning that Zhaohui was featured on the cover of our 2015 annual report (my favorite cover ever) walking across the ice on Keweenaw Bay in the dead of winter, where she and her graduate students were drilling holes in the ice and carrying out under-ice acoustic communication experiments.

Dr. Sumit Paudyal is the senior member of this group of young faculty. He came to us in 2012 with a PhD from the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. His work is on the electrical power side of the ECE Department, by far the most popular area among our current MS students. His research and teaching area is in optimization and control of power systems. He is the lead Michigan Tech investigator on a project sponsored by ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) in collaboration with the University of Vermont, titled “Packetized Energy Management: Coordinating Transmission and Distribution.” The aim is to improve the ways that power grids take advantage of multiple intermittent energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, borrowing some ideas from packet-switched communication (the essential idea behind the Internet.) Sumit is an outstanding teacher, with large graduate classes and very high student course evaluations; in fact, he has been recognized by the university through induction into the Michigan Tech Academy of Teaching Excellence. I recently did a little back-of the-envelope calculation, and discovered to my delight that, considering tuition revenue, course evaluations, and research expenditures, Sumit has made himself the third most valuable member of the ECE Department!

I get to work with a lot of wonderful people every day – our faculty, our staff, and our students. These four are among the best. We are proud to call them our own here in the ECE Department, and I look forward to many years of a mutual rewarding relationship.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: A Movie Pick

(Photo: Hollywood Reporter)
(Photo: Hollywood Reporter)

A few weeks ago my family and I went to see “Hidden Figures.” This movie traces the story of three African-American women in their struggle for opportunity and recognition as mathematicians and engineers in the early days of NASA’s Mercury space program. The story takes place in a time when NASA employed a large number of “computers” which in those days meant, literally, “people who compute.” Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine (Goble) Johnson, a mathematician who calculated spacecraft flight trajectories and ultimately played a critical role in the success of the John Glenn’s pioneering flight, orbiting the Earth – all while battling an organization that refused to give credit for her contributions, and having to walk a half mile in heels to the “colored” bathroom. Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer who identifies a problem with the capsule’s heat shield, and who eventually goes on to a career as an aeronautical engineer and engineering manager at NASA. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the unofficial supervisor for a group of female African-American “computers” who fought for recognition as a real supervisor and, after learning FORTRAN and becoming familiar with the new IBM computers that were installed to replace their human counterparts, eventually became supervisor of the Programming Department. I found the movie engaging and entertaining, and recommend it highly.

Even before seeing this, from the trailers it brought to mind two other movies about people struggling to make their contributions in the face of overt discrimination. One was “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African-American in Major League Baseball. I was mildly disappointed in this movie. Of course the historical story line is compelling, and the movie was well-acted and well-directed, but there were no surprises. The story arc was a straight line from beginning to end and most of the action was pretty predictable, especially to those with a cursory knowledge of baseball. The screenplay practically wrote itself.

I was even more disappointed in “The Imitation Game”, about Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and essentially the founder of modern computer science, who played a central role in the decrypting Nazi intelligence codes for the British in World War II. After the war Turing was outed for being gay, prosecuted for “gross indecency”, and eventually committed suicide in 1954 at age 41. Again, the movie was very well made and was a commercial success. However, it had quite a number of historical inaccuracies which distort his relationships both during and after the war. At least, that is what I have read – this is one of those cases where everything I know I learned on the Internet. What I have read, however, is consistent with the way I felt after seeing the movie. Somehow it did not ring true, that the filmmakers were trying too hard to portray historical events in the context of modern sensibilities. (My mother, who is something of a Civil War history buff, felt the exact same way about Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”)

So, going into “Hidden Figures” I was prepared for an entertaining but not particularly deep piece of fluff. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was completely pulled in to the story of these three women, and the juxtaposition of something that I cannot identify with (the struggles of African-American women) with something that I can (engineering and mathematics). Granted, there are parts of the history that are slightly altered for dramatic effect, but that is to be expected in any docudrama. I have not read any major complaints about historical inaccuracy. Katherine Johnson did go on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, was married 50 years to the soldier who courted her during the Mercury program (also depicted in the movie) and has a building named after her at Langley Research Center. Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer. Their story reflects the stories of countless other women and African-Americans who are pioneers in the STEM fields, blazing a trail for the modern generation of students and STEM professionals. I left the theater inspired and proud to be an engineer.

In addition to the central story line of the movie, there were two other messages that I absolutely loved. One is that an engineering education is something worth fighting for. For me the most moving scene in the movie was when Mary Jackson went before a judge and made her case, successfully, for why she should be allowed to take University of Virginia night-school engineering classes alongside the male students at all-white Hampton High School. Of course, these days no one should have to fight to be allowed to study engineering. The doors of Michigan Tech, like those of all engineering schools in the United States, are open to those who have prepared themselves and are willing to work hard. We can be proud of that, but we also have to recognize it would not be true without the efforts of many like those depicted in this movie.

The other message that I appreciated was one that had nothing to do with the social context, but was about engineering in general and the importance of getting things right the first time. When the flight engineers are determining the exact point in John Glenn’s flight when he goes from an elliptical orbit to the parabolic trajectory that will bring him back to the Earth – the “go/no-go” point – Katherine is pulled in to make sure that the calculations are absolutely correct. It brought to mind Ed Harris’ famous admonition in “Apollo 13” – failure is not an option! Any errors in the calculation would have meant a failure of the mission and the loss of an American hero. I was really happy to see that little message in there, and I hope all the budding engineers and mathematicians in the audience were paying attention.

Bottom line – wonderful movie; any STEM students (meaning 85% of Michigan Tech) would get a kick out of it. Two thumbs up!

– Dan

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