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


Hancock Middle School Students Get a Taste for the World of Programming

RSEoutreach-hancock_20170209Members of the Robotic Systems Enterprise (RSE) at Michigan Technological University recently visited Jen Davis’ eighth grade science class at Hancock Middle School to share their excitement in the rapidly growing field of robotics.

During the activities, students were shown how to use Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming platform which enables beginners to learn programming techniques without having to use complex syntax. From the Scratch platform, students were then shown how to create simple programs such as Hello World, which is the induction into a myriad of programming languages.

The visit was a huge success as the students enjoyed interacting, editing, and playing the Scratch programs that they helped the RSE Outreach members to create. Through events like this, RSE hopes to inspire future generations to the area of robotics and STEM education.

The Robotic Systems Enterprise is housed within the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and is advised by Dr. Glen Archer. RSE is an industry-driven enterprise that focuses on seamlessly integrating exceptional knowledge in electronics, robotics, and programming to solve real world engineering problems.


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Michigan Tech Responds

FWF_image_20170203I am setting aside the draft of the column I was working on for this week, so that I can write a few words in response to the president’s executive order temporarily banning people from seven countries from entering the United States. This order has had an immediate and significant impact across all of American higher education, including Michigan Tech. The impact has both a humanitarian dimension, in terms of the damage it is doing to our international students, scholars, and their families, and a practical dimension, in terms of the research, scholarship, and enrollment at institutions of higher learning nationwide.

This past Wednesday the University Senate of Michigan Tech passed a “Sense of the Senate” resolution on this same issue. I am not a member of the Senate and thus cannot vote, but nevertheless I was at the meeting. I agree with the resolution and support it. In fact, it reflects my own thoughts well enough that I will simply use it here, verbatim.

The first sentence of the resolution mentions that the Senate is a non-political body. I also affirmed two weeks ago that I would not use this column as a forum for my own political views. This raises an interesting question – what exactly is political? If I were to advocate for a candidate or a political party in an election, that would be unambiguously political and I am not going to do it. However, if I respond to actions of our government, whose officials have already been elected, which has ramifications for me and my community, then we are in more of a gray area – made more gray by the fact that all of the actors are on one side of the political spectrum. Having pondered this a while, my position is this: commenting on issues of law and policy that affect me, my colleagues, our students, and what we do for a living every day, is not political. It is my right and my duty as a citizen and an academic leader at Michigan Tech. I am commenting on the issues, not the people who created them.

In what is given below, I have removed a couple of short paragraphs I consider more internal to Michigan Tech, messages from the Senate to the university administration. Again, my purpose here is to use the words prepared by Senate members that I find accurately and eloquently represent my own position.

Here then is the (slightly edited) Sense of the Senate resolution, adopted Wednesday, February 1, 2017:

“Resolution in Support of our International Colleagues and Students”
(Voting Units: Full Senate)

*Background*

The University Senate of Michigan Technological University acknowledges that it is a non-political body. However, when external political events have an impact on its constituents and on the academic life at Michigan Technological University, the Senate has the obligation to address the issues at hand.

*Rationale*

The Senate agrees that President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” causes severe distress among the international employees and students of Michigan Technological University, and has a serious negative impact on the academic life at the university. Examples of these are, but are not limited to, international faculty being unable or scared to travel to international conferences or conduct their international research, international students being unable or scared to participate in studies abroad, faculty and students being unable or scared to plan visits to family members abroad, distressed students in the classroom, and reduced scholarly output of the people impacted. This in turn will have serious adverse effects on Michigan Technological University’s academic productivity.

*Resolution*

The Senate recognizes that the international character of this workplace is an important strength of Michigan Technological University. Michigan Technological University is proud to be an inclusive workplace welcoming employees and students from all backgrounds.

The Senate expresses strong support to all employees and students affected by the above mentioned executive order. The Senate recognizes that the group of employees and students affected by the executive order ranges beyond those originating from the seven countries directly targeted by the executive order, and in fact has an impact on everyone in our university community, because when one group is targeted we are all made vulnerable.The Senate will work to guarantee that adverse affects stemming from this order, such as reduced international mobility, are not used against anyone impacted (for example in decisions on tenure and/or promotion).

The Senate supports President Mroz’s statement: “I can’t relieve the distress that many of you might be feeling as a result of this and other events of the recent past. But what I can say is that with your help, we can, and we will, as the Michigan Tech Community, advocate for respect, understanding and compassion in the way we treat each other regardless of our differences. We can and we will defend the Constitutional rights of all in the Michigan Tech community. And we can and we will treasure and protect the free and open exchange that is essential to scholarship, research and creativity. By remaining committed to these core values we can all help to ensure that Michigan Tech remains a community that is open to people from across our nation and around the world.”

– Dan

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


ToA Ranging and Layer Thickness Computation in Nonhomogeneous Media

Seyed Reza Zekavat
Seyed Reza Zekavat

This paper, by Mohsen Jamalabdollahi (WLPS), and Seyed Reza Zekavat (ECE/WLPS), introduces a novel and effective ranging approach in Non-Homogeneous (NH) media consisting of frequency dispersive submedia via time-of-arrival (ToA) and Direction-of-Arrival (DoA) merger. Exploiting this technique, sensor node can be localized with in variety of NH media such as underground layers with different water content, airborne to underwater channels or even human body.

Moreover, this technique proposes a novel approach which can be utilized for layer thickness detection which have an prominent impact on the area of geoscience and remote sensing.

This paper is published in IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing which is ranked the second journal in area of remote sensing according to Scholar google metrics.


The Dan Fuhrmann and Tim Havens Duo Jazz it Up This Weekend

Backstage Jazz Mic and SignBackstage Jazz Celebrates “50 Years of Jazz” at Michigan Tech

Backstage at the Rozsa” again opens its doors to the groovin’ sounds of small-combo jazz to celebrate the 50th year of jazz studies at Michigan Tech.

There will be three student ensembles: Jaztec, Momentum with a combination of funk and fusion; AstroSax; and one special guest ensemble: The Dan Fuhrmann and Tim Havens Duo, here for their second guest appearance at Michigan Tech.

Join us in Club Rozsa and enjoy the intimate atmosphere reminiscent of the birthplace of jazz. Backstage at the Rozsa is at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 27/28, 2017).

Read more at Tech Today.

LISTEN LIVE


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Inauguration Day Reflections

FWF_image_20170120Well folks, here we are – January 20, 2017, the end of one remarkable era in American politics and beginning of a new one that promises to be even more remarkable.

Readers of this blog can probably figure out which way I lean, but I do not want to use this site as a forum to air my own political views. As a spokesman for the ECE Department at Michigan Tech, where one can find a diversity of opinions on social and political matters, it just wouldn’t be appropriate. I will say this: I believe in our democratic system of government, and our capitalist system for organizing economic activity, and I also believe in the goodwill of most of the American people most of the time. There will be those in the next four years who will seek ways to take advantage of the shifting political landscape for their own personal gain and to the detriment of the American people, but I suppose this can be said of any era. As always, we need to be good citizens – the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and that applies internally as well as externally.

What would be appropriate at this time is for me to consider what I can do, along with the ECE Department and all the rest of Michigan Tech, to be a positive contribution to our nation, our society, and the State of Michigan in the next few years. This election told us a lot about the electorate, including some things that may have caught a lot of people by surprise, and so now is a really good time to re-examine how an institution like Michigan Tech fits in.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that the nation is really divided right now (wouldn’t it be ironic if we can’t even agree on that…). I’m not even sure if “divided” is the right word; maybe “fractured” is more like it. Part of this is due to economic and social forces that I will mention later, but unfortunately it is also due to the way we use technology to communicate with one another. Our use of mass media, social media, and the Internet allows each of us to be very selective about where we get our news and whose opinion we listen to. If we choose to, we can all live in our own bubbles where our own views and preferences are reinforced, and opposing points of view are not heard. This is not altogether a result of our own actions either – any number of our major sources of information, like Google, Facebook, or Amazon, have become very good at tailoring the information we see to our individual preferences. Some of this is very cool – for example, I do appreciate learning from Amazon about a musical artist I might really like – but the flip side of that coin is never having to hear something that conflicts with my worldview. As many readers know, I am an evangelist for electrical and computer engineering and all the benefits we have brought to society in the past century, but putting everyone in their own bubble is not one of those benefits. Another closely related thing I worry about is this: now that the Internet has brought about widespread access to information, which is a good thing, it has also brought about widespread access to misinformation, which is a very bad thing. I am not sure if electrical and computer engineers are the ones to grapple with this problem, but clearly it is happening on the systems we created.

Aside from the technology story, I think a larger issue for us at a place like Michigan Tech to consider is how our U.S. educational system shapes and influences our society. I have been in higher education for virtually my entire career, and so I have to believe that what we are doing is good. I do believe that. The American system of higher education is the mechanism by which thousands of young adults find out who they are and how they will make their way in the world. Our system is the envy of the world – far more students come from abroad to study in U.S. colleges and universities than the other way around. We are a major economic driver: the research coming out of university laboratories leads to new innovations, new businesses, and new economic opportunities for a large swath of the population. I can attest that there is no better place to work than a good college or university.

But…there is another side to this story. Yes, our universities are great, but do they serve everyone in the nation? I am not suggesting that everyone should go to college. I opposed, and continue to oppose, the idea that was floated during the 2016 election campaign that college should be universally free of charge. Not everyone should aspire to go to college, and making it free would greatly distort that decision process. People who for good reasons choose not to go to college should have the same respect as everyone else and have a decent shot at the American Dream. That being said, there are still ways that our higher education system can benefit all of our society. If those that have the intelligence, the talent, and the ambition to attend college can do so, and then use their expanded knowledge and skills to benefit all through creating businesses, designing products and systems, getting engaged in civic affairs, and generally being a part of the community that is the United States, then great. Unfortunately I often see something else happening: smart people come to college, they meet other smart people, they graduate and hang out with more smart people, they get married and have smart kids, and eventually they segregate themselves completely from the communities they came from. When that happens, our system of higher education is not living up to its promise. We hear a lot about segregation along ethnic lines, along class lines, and along wealth lines, but I believe that over the past century there has also been a segregation along the lines of intellectual ability, and I would suggest that this as much anything has led us to the divided America that we see today.

In one short blog entry I have touched on two pretty major topics that are relevant today: how technology influences society, and the rise of the cognitive elite. I hope you will forgive me for bringing them up and then saying so little. Entire books could be written about both topics – plenty of people have done just that – and I will continue exploring these ideas with you in future columns. In the meantime, I will close by saying that I am grateful to live in a country where the peaceful transfer of power that I just witnessed a few moments ago can happen, and that we have the opportunity to pursue our dreams regardless of the party in power. What happens in Washington has an impact on our lives, but it does not determine our lives. Reminding ourselves of that may be one of the best things we can do today, for people anywhere along the political spectrum.

– Dan

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


Leonard Bohmann Quoted on the Handling of Power Outages

The Virginia Gazette quoted Leonard Bohmann, associate dean of Michigan Tech’s College of Engineering, in a lengthy article on power companies’ back-up plans for handling power outages on peninsulas caused by faults in the transmission system.

Dominion Virginia Power sets plan for emergency blackouts

Dominion Virginia Power has taken the unusual step of planning for an emergency blackout, with a plan to cut power to 150,000 customers on the Peninsula in the extremely rare event of faults at two components of its high-voltage network occurring at a time when demand for power is high.

Leonard Bohmann
Leonard Bohmann

“In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need an RAS because the system should be able to handle two faults. But it looks like their plan to deal with shutting the power plant has been taking longer than they expected,” said Leonard Bohmann, a professor of electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University, who lives in one of the few other regions of the country where a similar plan is in place, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Read more at The Virginia Gazette, by Dave Ress.


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Accelerating our MS Program

FWF_image_20170113The ECE Department at Michigan Tech has a long and distinguished history in undergraduate education, having prepared over 8000 engineering students for meaningful careers since its inception in 1928. The times are changing, however, and Michigan Tech is changing as well. Some 40% of the engineering students in the United States now are graduate students, seeking MS and PhD degrees. Our programs have been evolving over the past 2-3 decades to respond to this changing demographic and to respond to the needs of the marketplace. Today our graduate programs are just as important in defining who we are and what we do as our undergraduate programs. This is not to say that we are building graduate programs just to respond to outside forces – in today’s world, a thriving academic engineering department is one in which undergraduate education, graduate education, and faculty-led research all co-exist in synergistic harmony.

The nature of our graduate programs is evolving over time as well. There are actually two distinct flavors of graduate study – that leading to the degree Master of Science (MS) and that leading to the degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The PhD is the real research degree, where in effect we train our own replacements in the research community. It is a fairly long and arduous process of discovery – and self-discovery – involving close cooperation and collaboration between a student and his or her faculty advisor. The MS degree, on the other hand, provides students an opportunity to get advanced training and skills beyond what they learned as undergraduates, so that they can take on more technically challenging projects and become more valuable engineers for their employers or potential employers. There can be some research associated with the MS degree, and that possibility still exists at Michigan Tech. However, today the MS degree, under what we call the “coursework option” looks more and more like an advanced undergraduate degree, requiring 30 credits of advanced coursework beyond the baccalaureate.

In the ECE Department at Michigan Tech, we have been making steady progress in a concerted effort to grow our PhD program. We have a goal to graduate 10 PhD candidates each year, on average, and in our last 3-year goal cycle 2011-2014 we met that goal exactly. The growth of the PhD program happens in parallel with, but is not synonymous with, the growth of our faculty-led and externally supported research activity. The MS programs we have in electrical engineering (EE) and computer engineering (CpE) did not receive that much attention from the viewpoint of strategic goals, but we knew it was important to have a comprehensive slate of high-quality graduate courses so that we could meet the coursework needs of MS and PhD students alike. Then an interesting thing happened – our MS enrollment took off, totally out of proportion to our expectations! Our enrollment quadrupled over the past 10 years, doubling from 2005 to 2010 and doubling again from 2010 to 2015. In the Fall 2015 semester we had 200 MS students enrolled in the ECE Department, something that neither we nor anyone else at Michigan Tech would have predicted just a few years ago. Of course, we are delighted and gratified to see this level of interest in our programs, and are doing everything we can to meet the student demand.

One of things we have decided to do in response to this “success disaster” is create a new position of Graduate Academic Advisor. Many of these students are international and are new to Michigan Tech when they arrive. At the undergraduate level, the ECE Department has one and a half academic advisors – one full-time who advises 400 students, and one half-time who advises 200 students, roughly. (Aside: hats off to undergraduate advisors Judy Donahue and Trever Hassell, who do an outstanding job.) Using the logic that our 200 or so MS students also need dedicated professional advising, from someone with an academic engineering background, we proposed that the ECE Department create a position that was half-time advising and half-time teaching of advanced courses in areas where we needed to grow. Our proposal was approved by the university administration last summer. I am delighted to report that a successful search was conducted in the fall, and that we have identified the perfect person for the job – Dr. John Pakkala, currently of Milwaukee but soon to be back in the Upper Peninsula. I will have more to say about John after he joins the department this July.

Another aspect of our MS program that needs some attention is the diversity of the student population, in terms of country of origin and also technical area of interest. Right now we have an interesting situation in which the vast majority of our MS students are international, and are interested in power and energy. We can only guess how this situation came to be, although my guess is that it has a lot to do with the efforts of Prof. Bruce Mork and Prof. Leonard Bohmann over ten years ago to put all of our graduate courses in power and energy online. No doubt that created a lot of visibility and notoriety for that part of the Department. There is of course nothing wrong with having a lot of students from abroad – we love our international students and all that they do to create a rich cultural tapestry here at Michigan Tech. At the same time, however, many of our industry partners have openings for positions that require U.S. citizenship. We would also be meeting the needs of a lot of American students themselves by convincing them that an advanced degree would be in their own best interest, and in the interest of the state of Michigan. Therefore, one of our goals right now is to have the growth of the American side of MS student population mirror the growth of the international population.

A few years ago the university quietly created a program intended to do just that, to increase the number of U.S. students in our MS programs, by creating an incentive for our own undergraduates – primarily U.S. citizens – to stay for an extra year and earn that graduate degree. It is called the Accelerated Master of Science program. The crux of the program is this: while the BS degree requires a minimum of 128 credits, and the MS degree 30 credits, students in the Accelerated MS program may double-count 6 credits to apply toward both degrees simultaneously. This brings the total number of credits for the combined BS/MS package down to 152. It’s not a bad deal, and one to which we hope our undergraduates give serious consideration.

This year, under the leadership of the new Dean of the Graduate School, Pushpalatha Murthy, the Graduate School has decided to make a more concerted effort to promote the Accelerated MS programs across the university. The Graduate School is upping the ante by creating a financial incentive in the form of a one-time tuition award for students in their first semester of the MS part of the program. This award, called the Graduate Award for Academic Excellence, or GAEA, requires a nomination by the academic department, with the sole criterion being academic merit. In the ECE Department we are grateful to the Graduate School for recognizing the importance of the program and are optimistic that over the next few years we will be successful in our efforts to continue growing our MS program, in both size and breadth.

This column may not be the best venue for promoting the Accelerated MS program, since I have no idea how many of the readers are our own undergraduates (probably not many). Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to put it out there. Spread the word: the ECE Department at Michigan Tech has a graduate program that all our stakeholders can be proud of, and we are doing everything we can to make it better.

– Dan

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