Fridays with Fuhrmann: The image of ECE

FWF_image2_20160408A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual meeting of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, or ECEDHA, in San Diego. I enjoyed seeing old friends, making new ones, and having good discussions about a number of issues that we have in common and may not realize.

One of those issues is that of the ECE “image”, that is, how the general public, and specifically prospective students and their parents, views the field of electrical and computer engineering. There is a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the fact that we as a profession are not widely known or appreciated for what we have accomplished, and that in fact we are “losing ground” to other disciplines who are moving in on our turf.

This brings up a couple of thoughts for me. The first is, should we be worried about this at all? I think I will put that one off, and today I will offer a couple of observations on how I think we got to this point.

First of course is the “nerd” stereotype associated with electrical engineers, and engineers in general. This is promulgated in popular culture – think e.g. of the comic strip Dilbert, or Wollowitz in “The Big Bang Theory”, or many of the characters in “Revenge of the Nerds.” We all cringe at these stereotypes, although most of us in our heart of hearts will admit there is a kernel of truth in them; some even embrace them fully. Still, it is a constant battle to convince young people that one can be an engineer and still live a happy, healthy, productive, and well-adjusted life. I do what I can when given the opportunity.

A second issue is the “invisibility” part, that is, no one knows who we are and what we do. In this regard I think that as electrical engineers we have become a victim of our own success. We happen to work on systems that depend wholly or in part on the manipulation of electricity – voltage, current, electric fields, and the like – and it just turns out that of all the forces of nature in the universe, electricity is probably the most malleable. We can do things at unbelievable scales of both space and time. We can make electrical devices change their state a billion times a second, and can put a billion different such devices on a chip no bigger than a square centimeter. As a consequence, we can build systems that do unbelievable things, like a smart phone that connects to the Internet and downloads and displays videos from half a world away. The problem is, this technology is so successful that it is adopted quickly and commoditized. It is so useful and popular that people will just assume that it exists (or even claim that they have right to it) and they are unaware where it came from and the effort that it took to bring it to market. One can say this about electrical power to the home, telephone service, radio, TV, audio systems, medical instrumentation, computers – the list goes on and on. All this stuff just showed up in our lives in the space of two to three generations. But if you ask kids who invented the iPhone, guess what they will tell you, almost certainly: scientists.

It may be that part of the reason we as a profession are invisible is that the stuff we work with – electricity – is also invisible. The work of a mechanical engineer is obvious in the motion of an automobile, and the work of a civil engineer is obvious in the structure of a bridge. It’s there for all the world to see. However, people just have to take our word for it when we say we are pushing electrons around for the benefit of humanity. You can see the results of our work – that video downloaded to your phone, say – but everything that made that happen remains a mystery to most.

What to do about this situation? I suppose we have to address the first question I asked, namely, should we worry about it at all? Stay tuned; I’ll pick that up another day.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Happy April 1st!

campusGreetings and Happy Spring everyone.  I am thrilled to bring you some exciting news from the world of high tech.

First off, Google has announced that as part of its effort to develop an autonomous, or self-driving, car, they have been secretly developing the technology that will make it self-powered as well.  Specifically, they have invented a closed-loop wind power system in which the motion of the car turns a roof-mounted windmill that powers both the electric motors and the on-board computers, which require roughly equal power.  At highway speeds the energy conversion is so efficient that the generators create more energy than is needed to propel the car.  The energy is stored in large batteries, and can be sold back to local utilities at “unfilling stations” which Google also plans to deploy at street corners across America, in a cooperative venture with Starbucks.  The new vehicle, called the Blowhard, is expected to eliminate American dependence on fossil fuel for transportation. A second team of civil engineers has been assembled by the tech giant to consider the retrofitting of highway overpasses to accommodate the new design.

Second, Apple and Facebook are teaming up and plan to use their considerable economical and political clout to lobby for a repeal Shannon’s celebrated Channel Capacity Theorem.  At a joint press conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decried the excessive regulatory burden of this antiquated 68-year-old result.  Said Zuckerburg, “We need relief now from the political correctness of Shannonism and everything it is doing to hinder the awesome power of innovation and entrepreneurship across the U.S.  We now have devices that can access all of human knowledge, but because of a bunch of eggheads who don’t understand the real needs of our industry, all that people can do is use the technology to insult strangers and look at videos of cats.”  Cook concurred.  “We need some fresh thinking in Washington to unlock the true potential of the Internet, to give all Americans something for nothing.  I hope everyone has that in mind as they evaluate the candidates for national office in the upcoming elections.”

Finally, in a surprise move reversing an earlier decision, the National Academy of Engineering has named the automated voice answering system as the #1 technical achievement of the 20th century.
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APRIL FOOLS!!!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann

Dave House Professor and Chair

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Engineering + Management

FWF_image_1_20160325The last couple of weeks I have written about entrepreneurship, management, and leadership in engineering and engineering education. I have a few more thoughts about this topic, and next week I’ll move on to something else.

Last week I said that I support education in entrepreneurship and innovation for ECE students, but that I don’t have much to offer in that arena so I’ll have to leave it up to someone else. I also made the case for an education that emphasizes engineering fundamentals first, and the other more human-centered activity later. I stand by those remarks, although I will admit there is plenty of room for debate. This past weekend I heard a lot of that debate at the annual meeting of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, or ECEDHA (yes, there really is such a group.) A lot of universities and engineering schools are introducing entrepreneurship into the curriculum, so Michigan Tech is not alone in this venture and we can probably learn a lot from our peers.

My first point will be to encourage 5-year programs for students that really want to do it all. The standard undergraduate engineering program is four years, and at Michigan Tech that means 128 student credit hours – 32 per year, 16 per semester. The pressure is on to cram as much stuff as we possibly can in those 128 credit hours. We certainly contribute to that problem by our insistence on rigorous EE and CpE programs that have a lot of courses required by name and number. I still maintain this is the right approach, since the best time to learn that material is when one are 18 to 22 years old, and we have a whole lifetime to keep learning about relationships with other people, how organizations work, and how to turn ideas into money. For those students that want to combine engineering with business, then I think the best approach is to admit that four years is just not enough, and the investment of another year of early adult life in education may be called for. This creates some breathing room, and also an opening to pursue an additional degree. This degree could be a second undergraduate degree such as a BS in Engineering Management, or an advanced technical degree such as our MS in Electrical Engineering or MS in Computer Engineering. At Michigan Tech we have recently introduced the “accelerated” MS program, where students can double-count 6 credits toward both a BS and an MS degree, thereby getting both the BS and MS in 152 total credits instead of 158 (128+30). Not that many students are taking advantage of this opportunity to date, but that is mostly the result of our not doing enough to promote the program. That is certainly on my to-do list.

For students who want to go “all in” for engineering management and leadership, I strongly recommend a rigorous undergraduate engineering education first, working a few years as an engineer in a reputable organization, and then returning to school either full-time or part-time to earn an MBA. The Engineering + MBA combination is a very hot ticket and students who can get all the way through both sides will find themselves very well positioned for a lucrative career. What I don’t really recommend is a stand-alone undergraduate program in engineering management. Michigan Tech has one of these programs, and so I’m probably going to get in trouble for writing these words. I’m just not a big fan. I believe that the first step toward engineering management is engineering, which means knowing what the field is and actually having work experience in it. I will bolster this argument by pointing out that undergraduate engineering majors are very well-represented among Fortune 500 CEOs; see Insead Knowledge blog. Again, this is one of these areas where there is room for debate, so if any of my colleagues want to take issue with my remarks I will be happy to give them room in this column to do so.

Finally, let me mention the hot-button issue of General Education, or “Gen Ed” as it is often called. This refers to the set of courses that are included in the curriculum to ensure a well-rounded education of all the students. In many institutions the Gen Ed program refers to the requirements that are common to all students, and this is the case at Michigan Tech. Now I am all for a well-rounded education, and believe that all students should have a meaningful learning experience in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This helps to promote good critical thinking and communication skills. Like a lot of electrical engineers, I am an amateur musician and that has made a huge difference for me personally in giving me a broad outlook on life, not to mention expanding my circle of friends. Where I have problems with Gen Ed programs is that those in charge of setting requirements often give short shrift to business-related courses, which really can be a part of a broad education and at the same time create some room in the 4-year engineering programs for those with interests in business, economics, and accounting. So, I will continue pushing for a “broader” interpretation of what Gen Ed means, and hopefully our ECE students will benefit in the long term.

Have a great weekend. I’ll be back next week with some thoughts stirred up by the recent ECEDHA meeting.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Engineering Education and Entrepreneurship

FWF_image_20160318Last week I wrote about my trip to the San Francisco and Bay Area and the culture of high-tech innovation that is flourishing there. Today I will follow up with a few random thoughts about entrepreneurship and the role that universities play in this world.

There is no doubt that entrepreneurship and start-up companies are huge in Silicon Valley. There is a whole eco-system of universities (most notably Stanford), venture capital, incubators, and a wealth of engineering talent to keep the Valley humming. Everybody and his brother has some venture going, in fact you’re nobody if you’re not trying to create some new business. It’s as if, in southern California, everyone is out trying to hawk their amazing screenplay, and in northern California, everyone has an idea for an Internet start-up that they will pitch to anyone who will listen.  Everyone is aware of the meteoric rise of Apple, Google, and Facebook – Steve Jobs has become a cultural icon – and the prevailing sentiment is, there is no good reason that I can’t do the same thing and become a bazillionaire with my fantastic disruptive technology.

This is sort of an aside, but this whole culture of entrepreneurship is brilliantly depicted in the hilarious HBO series “Silicon Valley”, about to go into its third season. The show follows a group of engineering misfits (aren’t we all) with a great algorithm for  video coding, all living and working under one roof, as they navigate the choppy waters of venture capitalists, big-time competitors, trade shows, and misguided management. I highly recommend it, although it is HBO so be prepared for the usual cable standards of adult language and themes. I have had a number of good conversations in California about the show, and everyone has an opinion. Many will say “it’s nothing like that!” but just as many will nod knowingly and say “it’s exactly like that.”

But back to matters at hand. The culture of entrepreneurship which has taken California by storm and has become part of the national conversation, is having a big impact on engineering programs, especially in electrical engineering and computer science. It is  now clear that starting a company is now one of the options available to young engineers, right alongside getting a job at an established company or going to graduate school. The question is, what can we do, and what should we do, as educators to prepare students for this brave new world?

Michigan Tech is addressing this question head-on. We have established a Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, precisely to help students learn about project management, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business practices in the high-tech environment. Students from all different disciplines have the opportunity to participate in the Center, and indeed it played a role in the “Silicon Valley Experience” that I described last week. The Center is getting a lot of attention from philanthropically-minded alumni, and rightly so. I expect it to be a big success, and a big draw for new students coming to Michigan Tech.

That being said, my personal answer to what we should be doing for our students is a little bit different. I have to admit, straight up, that I do not know that world very well (OK, at all) and therefore I really can’t be of much help. I fully support my colleagues and our good friends who want to support this activity, but for the most part they are going to have to do it without me. Maybe someday I’ll have a great idea and try to start a business, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I shouldn’t be telling students how to do it until I do. (That’s not entirely true – for a while I owned a business in Missouri called “Tropical Entertainment” that was the business front for a salsa band that I played in. But that’s a story for another column.) My skills are much better put to use helping students learn the fundamentals of electrical engineering, and supporting my faculty so that we can be the best ECE Department that we know how to being terms of education and research.

The other point I have to make about going “all in” with entrepreneurship is that, as exciting as it sounds, only a small fraction of our students are ever going to give it a shot. The vast majority of our students are going to work for an established company as an engineer, and they are going to be very good at it.  The 300+ companies that come to campus to hire our students are well aware of this.  Taking this a step further, I’m not going to throw all those corporate recruiters under the bus by telling them that our main goal is to train students to start their own businesses. People study engineering for all sorts of reasons. Our mission should be to prepare students in electrical and computer engineering, so that they can go out into the world, practice their trade, and make a decent living. What they do after that is up to them. Starting a business is one of the options, to be sure, but the truth is that most of them will practice their engineering by working for someone else, and that’s perfectly OK with me.

My last point today has to do with the issue of when is the best time to get into the entrepreneurial game. As I stated above, I am supportive of my colleagues who want to bring that down into undergraduate educational programs. Where I draw the line, however, is in substituting business and entrepreneurship for hard-core engineering at the undergraduate level. There is a time and a place for everything, and let’s face it, the best time to learn science, math, and engineering is when you are young. Young brains are just ready for it. Those same brains may not be fully developed for mature social interactions, but that’s OK, there is time enough for that later.  Business, management, leadership, entrepreneurship – these are domains that require knowledge of working with people as well as working with things, and for many that knowledge comes with a few extra years. My advice to students is, before you get stars in your eyes, LEARN ENGINEERING FIRST. It will serve you well later, no matter what you do. As a case in point, I look at all of our very – and I mean very – successful ECE alumni who have had fabulous careers as business leaders and entrepreneurships, and are promoting entrepreneurship on our campus so heavily. Ask them what they were doing when they were 22 years old, and the answer is uniformly the same – they were working as engineers.

Am I the only one who sees the irony in this situation?  Engineering education and engineering practice at a young age is the best launch pad for anything our ambitious students want to accomplish in life.

So again, I fully support my colleagues who seek to bring exposure to entrepreneurship into our undergraduate curriculum; I think it’s great and very forward-looking. For my part, I’m going to keep doing what I do best – building educational programs for students that I fully expect to be among the very best electrical and computer engineers in the country.

– Dan

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


ECE announces MasterpiECE Mania winners

MasterpiECE Mania first place team Physical Spectrum Analyzer by Matthew Linenfelser, Jerry Sommerfeld, Alex Herbst, and Matt Miller
MasterpiECE Mania first place project Physical Spectrum Analyzer by Matthew Linenfelser, Jerry Sommerfeld, Alex Herbst, and Matt Miller

There was electricity in the air last night at the MasterpiECE Mania student design competition hosted by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and IEEE. 16 teams competed in the annual event with prizes going to the top three teams. Actually four, as the judges concluded a tie for third.

This year’s event was sponsored by Whirlpool Corporation with a generous gift of $2,000 to help support cash prizes, partial project supply reimbursal, event promotion, and a pasta buffet prior to the evening’s demonstrations to thank all the team members for their time and effort in their creative innovations.

Here are the results:

  • 1st place, $500: Physical Spectrum Analyzer by Matthew Linenfelser, Jerry Sommerfeld, Alex Herbst, and Matt Miller
  • 2nd place, $300: Automatic Resistor Sorter by Peter Gorecki
  • 3rd place, $200 (ea): Midi Orchestra by Joe Halford; Internet Enabled LED Controller by Alex Simon and Pierce Jensen
  • Honorable mention: Arduino Uno Controlled Quadcopter by Cameron Burke;  Rc Aircraft by Josh Gobrogge

A few details regarding the winning project: A spectrum analyzer is a device for analyzing a system of oscillations, especially sound, into its separate components. The “Winter Spectrum” uses small polystyrene particles and powerful fans to visualize an audio signal. Using a microprocessor (TI Tiva C Launchpad) the team was able to run a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm on an incoming line level audio signal. This separated the audio frequencies into “bins” which integer value represents the intensity of the certain frequency. Pulse width modulated (PWM) signals are fed to the fans under the acrylic enclosure. The beads then rise to the level that best represents the FFT frequency bin average.

MasterpiECE Mania began in 2009 with the goal of inciting creativity throughout the Michigan Tech community and fostering an appreciation for the ‘DIY’ aspect of modern electronics. Although the yearly MasterpiECE Mania competition is hosted by the Michigan Tech ECE department, it is open to all Michigan Tech Students regardless of major. This intra-disciplinary hack-a-thon competition challenges student to develop and build an electrical-based project that displays their skill and ingenuity.


Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Silicon Valley Experience

SiValley-Tour-2014-1311131I am writing today while en route back to Houghton after a week in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was participating in something that has become an annual Spring Break event, tagging along with 20 Michigan Tech students on a whirlwind tour we call the Silicon Valley Experience. Students from all different majors apply through an internal competition to take part. They visited 12 different companies over 4 days, learning all about the high-tech world of Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurial culture surrounding it. The list of companies includes household names – Apple, Google, Facebook – along with other established companies and new start-ups. There is a Michigan Tech connection at all these places, which helps to get our foot in the door. My time is split between visiting with Michigan Tech alumni, both old friends and new, and joining the students at company visits as my schedule allows. I want to give a shout-out here to our Director of Industry Program Development, Adam Johnson, for the terrific job he did at organizing the event and taking care of all the logistics.

After one of these trips to California I come away with so many impressions that I could easily fill two or three of these columns with my random thoughts. I just might.

First off, we all just have to admit that Silicon Valley is the center of the universe when it comes to innovation in the information technology space. There is no other place like it. It is brimming with all sorts of electrical engineers, computer engineers, software engineers, and entrepreneurs working to create the next big thing and disrupt last year’s technology, with the support of a massive economic engine of venture capital. Almost overnight, it seems, the technology created there has gone from a novelty to a necessity – search engines on Google, smart phones from Apple, social media on Facebook where these very words are being written. I can sit in an airport and be connected to family, friends, and work via a communication network called the Internet that hardly anyone imagined some 30-40 years ago. These are hugely powerful forces that have transformed our lives completely, and the pace of that change shows no signs of slowing down.

There is a lot of excitement and buzz surrounding these technological innovations, and as a result Silicon Valley attracts the best and brightest engineering talent. There are a lot of job opportunities, but even so the market can be pretty competitive as the top companies can afford to be pretty choosy. It’s like the song lyric about New York – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. In fact, the analogy with Broadway is pretty apt, as job interviews have been transformed from conversations across a desk to auditions of actual programming and engineering skill. I understand the process can be pretty grueling. However, if one has what it takes, the salaries and perks are unmatched in the engineering world.

One immediate impression that I come away with is how the workplace itself has changed over the past decade. Google was on the leading edge, but their style has been picked up by most of the other established companies and newcomers. On this trip it seemed to me that Facebook is raising the bar even further. Every day is casual day. I don’t even bother packing a tie when I travel to California anymore; I wore the same pair of jeans all this week and half the time I was overdressed. More remarkable is the level of amenities available to employees – free food and drink 24/7, all you can eat, game rooms, music rooms, barber shops, bicycle repair, even medical care. The days of residential dormitories on or near the corporate campuses are not far away. The whole idea is to keep engineers and programmers at work and happy for hours on end, and not give them any reason to stop being productive. I get to sample this workplace style every so often because of a Google-sponsored research project I am on right now. I have to wonder what it would be like all the time – I guess one gets used to it – but for the few days at a time that I see it, I feel like I am living high on the hog. For the companies, it is clear that the cost of these amenities is far outweighed by the value of a productive employee.

I will bring this to a close here, and follow up in the next few weeks with my thoughts on 1) the culture of entrepreneurship in the high-tech world, 2) what universities like Michigan Tech should be doing to help students prepare for success, and 3) what can other regions of U.S., like the upper Midwest, learn from Silicon Valley. No doubt I’ll be trolling the Internet on my smartphone and checking in with social media to get some good material.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michigan Technological Univerrsity


ECE well represented at the SPIE Photonics West

SPIE Photonics West attendees and presenters: (L-R)Abhinav Madhavachandran, Arash Hosseinzadeh, Derek Burrell (SPIE/OSA MTU chapter president, Liz Dreyer (Cloos), Anindya Majumdar, Mitch Kirby, and Nima Taherkhani
SPIE Photonics West attendees and presenters: (L-R) Abhinav Madhavachandran, Arash Hosseinzadeh, Derek Burrell (SPIE/OSA MTU chapter president), Liz Dreyer (Cloos), Anindya Majumdar, Mitch Kirby, and Nima Taherkhani

Michigan Technological University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), along with Departments Biomedical Engineering (BME) and Physics were well represented at the annual SPIE Photonics West conference held in San Francisco, CA, on February 13-18, 2016.

Arash Hosseinzadeh, PhD candidate in electrical engineering, Derek Burrell, BSEE senior and SPIE/OSA MTU chapter president, and Mitch Kirby, BSBE (EE minor) presented papers and research findings on topics:  Design and optimization of polymer ring resonator modulators for analog microwave photonic applications, Comparison of self-written waveguide techniques and bulk index matching for low-loss polymer waveguide interconnects, and Effects of incident intensity on laser speckle contrast imaging.

BME Chair Sean Kirkpatrick was session chair and moderator and ECE Prof. Chris Middlebrook co-authored two papers presented. Also attended were Nima Taherkhani, MSEE candidate, and ECE alumna Liz (Cloos) Dreyer ’12, currently a PhD pre-candidate in electrical engineering (optics) at the University of Michigan, Abhinav Madhavachandran, MSBE candidate, and Anindya Majumdar, PhD candidate Physics.

Student travel was partially funded by Michigan Tech’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Graduate Student Government (GSG).

See more information on the SPIE/OSA MTU Chapter see mtu.osahost.org.

 

 


Fridays with Fuhrmann: e^(jθ) = cos(θ) + j sin(θ)

FWF_image-2_20160304

Today is the Friday before Spring Break at Michigan Tech. There are still a few classes today but for the most part things are pretty quiet as students slip out of town. This is a special day for me, as it was on the Friday before Spring Break in 2008 when I first set foot on the Michigan Tech campus, as part of the chair interview process.  I remember it was a cold windy day, with temperatures in the single digits.  Being new to the area, I just figured that was the norm here in early March.  It took me a while to learn that 5 degrees is cold even for Houghton!

Since we are at the halfway point in the semester, I thought I would write a few words about the half-semester course that I teach. It’s on my mind since I just submitted the final grades. This does not have a lot to do with major department or university issues; it’s just my pet project.

For the past four years, every semester I have taught a one-credit freshman course titled Essential Mathematics for Electrical Engineering. This grew out of another course that used to be taught here called Introduction to Signal Processing, which was the ECE Department’s response to a national movement in EE education called “DSP First”. The idea there was that electrical engineering students would be better served by first learning system concepts through the medium of digital signal processing (DSP), rather than by starting with electric circuits, which was considered somewhat old-fashioned and stodgy. We have since decided that that approach does not work very well for Michigan Tech students, for whatever reason, and that electric circuits isn’t such a bad place to start after all. It is concrete, it is practical, and it has limited scope which is important when one is breaking new ground.

That course in signal processing, which I did teach a couple of times, did have one really valuable component. The first month or so, roughly one credit’s worth, was spent on mathematical material that was critical not only for signal processing but many other EE subjects as well. A decision was made by the department to carve out this material, put it into a one-credit course, and make it a required prerequisite for everything that follows, starting with circuits. Essential Mathematics for Electrical Engineering was born.

The course covers material that seems to show up more in electrical engineering than in any of the other engineering disciplines. In a nutshell, the topics are sinusoids, exponentials, complex numbers, complex exponentials, phasors, and a little bit of calculus for complex exponentials and damped sinusoids. This is stuff that is critically important for circuits, linear systems, power systems, signal processing, control, and communication – in other words, the majority of the EE curriculum. Students may have seen some of the material scattered throughout their high school and college math courses, but I wanted to put it all together in a unified way. I have often seen throughout my career that EE instructors will assume that students know this material, but they cannot point to a course where they were supposed to have learned it. I set out to rectify that situation.

My approach to this course is “less is more.” I present a carefully prescribed set of topics, and I tell the students exactly what I expect them to learn. It’s not much, so I want them to really learn it and not just “be exposed” to it. The course is pass/fail, and the grade is based entirely on a closed-book one-hour exam with a pass threshold of 70%. I know that sounds a little intimidating, so I give them 3 chances to pass the exam. What I like to tell them is that the exam is like the “driver’s test” for electrical engineering – 3 chances to get 70%! In my experience so far, about 1/3 of the class passes on the first try (and are done early), another 1/3 passes on the second try, and most of the remainder pass it on the 3rd attempt. Historically the pass rate for the course is about 90%. It takes some students longer than others to figure out that I am serious, but eventually most get on board and do just fine.

One of the key elements of this course is Euler’s Formula, which ties together sinusoids, exponentials, and complex numbers in a beautiful way. [If you’re not familiar the formula is e^j theta = cos(theta) + jsin(theta).] I tell students that the whole course is about learning Euler’s Formula and understanding what it means. I go as far as telling them, if we run into each other at some watering hole in Houghton and they can recite Euler’s Formula from memory, I will buy them any beverage they are old enough to drink. This has actually happened – more than once!

I hope – and believe – that the course has had a positive effect on the students and our EE curriculum. I am not shy about asking students later if the course was useful, and the answer usually a definitive yes. It is not a major course, but it is an important stepping stone and I am happy with that

My challenge now is to find someone else to help me teach it, as I take on more administrative responsibility and start to wind down some of my teaching and research. This course has become my baby, and given my inclinations toward micro-management it is going to take a lot to turn it over to one of our other very capable ECE faculty members. I guess I’ll just have to swallow hard and think of it as a learning experience for me. 

Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann

Dave House Professor and Chair

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: A heartfelt thank you!

FWF_image-3_20160226
L-R Front: ECE Chair Dr. Dan Fuhrmann, Prof. John Lukowski, recipients Casey Strom, Ester Buhl, and Lauren Clark. L-R Back: recipient Jonathan Schulz, Prof. Bruce Mork, recipients Dustin Hanes, Zachary Jensen, Troy Johnston, and Executive Vice President of Systems Control Brad Lebouef.

This week Michigan Tech made an announcement of a gift from ECE alumnus David Brule, Sr., in support of scholarships in the ECE Department. You can read all about it on the university daily news source “Tech Today“.

Dave Brule is a very good friend of Michigan Tech and of the ECE Department. He has supported a number of initiatives at the university, and while this is not done secretly or anonymously, to my knowledge none of the activities or facilities he has supported carry his name. For example, he was a major contributor to the Dennis Wiitanen Endowed Professorship in Electric Power Engineering, named in honor of a long-time and much-loved faculty member in the ECE Department. He recently funded the renovation of a plaza outside the library, named in honor of retired facilities manager John Rovano.

There are several reasons this is good news for the ECE Department. The first is of course the financial support that it provides for some of our most promising students. Beyond that, however, it serves as a good recruiting tool for the ECE Department, and it raises our visibility as a Department with a long history of excellence in undergraduate education in electrical power transmission and distribution. This is an area where there are significant workforce needs, now and anticipated in the near future. Indeed this is part of Dave’s motivation: to get more students interested in the utility power industry in general, and for Systems Control in particular.  In order to attract students into the field, the ECE Department and its partners and friends need to do everything possible to raise awareness of the career opportunities, and to train students to be ready for those opportunities. Finally, I have to commend Dave for really raising the bar in terms of the philanthropic response to this workforce need. A lot of recruiters talk to me about tapping into our ECE talent pipeline, which is gratifying of course and along with Career Services I do everything I can to help them. Now we have a first-rate example of what it really takes to get the attention of students in today’s job market, and it is much more than anything I could ever do by myself.

Michigan Tech is very grateful to all its alumni, friends, and other donors for their philanthropic support of the university mission. It means the world to us. I encourage anyone with a possible interest in doing the same to get in touch – I’d love to talk to you.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann

Dave House Professor and Chair

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: ECE Students/Graduates Are In Demand!

FWF_image_20160219This past Tuesday Michigan Tech held its spring Career Fair at the Student Development Center. We had 227 recruiting organizations on campus, looking to hire our students and graduates for full-time, co-op, and internships positions. 139 of those companies were looking to hire electrical and/or computer engineers, among many others of course. The spring fair is always smaller than the fall version – last September we had 370 companies on campus – but even so, this is a big event by anyone’s standards. My hat’s off to the Michigan Tech Career Services office, which does an outstanding job for our students.

Over the years, Career Fair has become for me one of the most exciting and energizing days at Michigan Tech. You see students dressed to impress, and looking for that interview which could launch their career, and you see all the recruiters really interested in our students because of the value those students could bring to their organizations. I get the same story all the time – Michigan Tech students have a great work ethic and are ready to jump right in and make contributions, no matter where they land. A lot of people attribute this to our environment here, where students have to move a long way from Mom and Dad, develop as independent adults, and endure at least four harsh winters (although our little secret is that the winters are more fun than harsh.) Of course, we also believe that our educational programs that emphasize engineering and math fundamentals, individual skills, hands-on learning, and team projects have a lot to do with it too. Whatever the reasons might be, it is extremely gratifying to know that we are making a contribution to the economy and that our students are in demand. I heard anecdotal evidence that starting salaries for EEs are now pushing $70k and higher.

I like to talk to recruiters and find out what specific areas are in demand too. The hottest area for EEs right now, as it has been for several years, is controls. If you are not familiar with the field, control (in the engineering sense) is all about making things do what you want them to do, from cars to motors to appliances, to large factories and steel mills. The push toward automation in all areas of our society and economy is driving a demand for engineers who understand this field. Controls engineers tend to have broad interests, since to be successful one must have mastery over the mathematical fundamentals, as well as a working knowledge of the systems and components being controlled, which could be electrical, mechanical, or chemical. This combination of theoretical and practical skills seems to match our students pretty well.

We have been working to beef up the controls area of the ECE Department to meet this demand. What used to be an elective senior-level course in control theory was converted to a required junior-level course. Along with the School of Technology, we received a very generous gift from Nucor Steel to completely renovate a laboratory where EE and EET students learn about programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and their many applications; this is now known as the Nucor Industrial Control and Automation Laboratory. We still have one senior-level elective in digital and nonlinear control. ECE recently took over sponsorship of the Robotics Systems Enterprise. I do not think we are finished with this yet; I would love to see one or more additional courses that cover control system integration and the Internet of Everything, although this may take time and resources. Next year we may roll out a new Concentration in Controls Engineering, to go along with several existing concentration areas within the BSEE and BSCpE degree programs

You can see that events like the Career Fair do more than just find jobs for our students. Our relationships with industry partners help to inform us about what we need to be doing in our educational programs, both for them and for our students. I see a three-way “ecosystem” involving the university, the students, and industry, which right now seems to be working really well for everyone. The exciting challenge now is to keep those relationships thriving in an era of constant technological, economic, and societal change. There is something to look forward to every day!

– Dan

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