Joshua Pearce on 3D Printing for Scientific and Humanitarian Use

Joshua Pearce speaking with another man.
Joshua Pearce at the University of Lorraine

Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) gave an invited talk for the University of Lorraine entitled “Will you 3D print your next lab? : Leveraging Improvements in Distributed Manufacturing for Open Source Scientific Hardware” at the Lorraine Fab Living Lab in Nancy, France.

The visit was covered by the regional newspaper L’Est Republicain(circulation >123,000).

In Print

Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) authored the chapter “Open-source 3D Printing” in “Managing Humanitarian Innovation: The cutting edge of aid.” Editors: Eric James and Abigail Taylor, 2018, Practical Action Publishing.

eISBN: 978-178044-953-1 | ISBN: 978-185339-953-4 doi:https://doi.org/10.3362/9781780449531.021


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Michigan Tech’s 10th President

richard-j-koubek-outdoorThis morning at 10am, with just the right amount of drama, suspense, and fanfare, the Michigan Tech Board of Trustees in a special meeting announced the selection of Dr. Richard J. Koubek as the 10th president of the University. Dr. Koubek will take office on July 1, 2018.

Dr. Koubek was introduced at the meeting, which was very well attended as you might imagine, and made a few opening remarks. He and his wife Valerie are on campus today for a quick introduction to the entire university community, spread out over multiple events. I hope he understands there will not be a quiz at the end of the day.

Michigan Tech has a web page announcing the selection, which has lots of good information about the president-elect. See http://www.mtu.edu/president-elect.

Obviously we as a community are just now getting to know Dr. Koubek for the first time. So far I am impressed with his credentials, his accomplishments, and his demeanor. All indications are that this is an outstanding selection; I congratulate and thank the Presidential Search Committee and the Board of Trustees. I am excited and optimistic about the future of this institution – as I always have been.

– Dan

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


Sweidan and Havens Publish on Target Tracking

Husam Sweidan
Husam Sweidan

Husam Sweidan, PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Timothy Havens (ECE), published an article entitled, “Sensor Relocation for Improved Target Tracking,” in the April, 2018, volume of IET Wireless Sensor Systems.

DOI: 10.1049/iet-wss.2017.0037 , Print ISSN 2043-6386, Online ISSN 2043-6394

Extract: In the first phase, the wireless sensor network tracks the targets based on the initial deployment. The second phase uses the location estimates from phase 1 to form a region of interest (ROI). The last phase carries out the sensor relocation to the ROI.


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Magic and Daring

FWF-image-20180323_ljh
Last weekend, at the tail end of a long trip out west that included both fun and work, I attended the annual meeting of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, or ECEDHA, in Monterey, California. I spent a highly enjoyable couple of days in meetings and social events with my colleagues from other ECE departments across the country. We compared notes on a wide variety of topics of mutual interest, and thought about ways we can learn from each other about continuous improvement of our organizations and programs.

This year there was a parallel workshop specifically for communicators from ECE departments. Lisa Hitch, the ECE Business Manager and Technical Communications Specialist, attended that workshop. I have asked her to serve as a guest blogger this week and relate her experience. Lisa, take it away! -Dan


Nearly 300 academics, made up of ECE department chairs/heads, deans, faculty, lab managers and graduate students came together this past week in Monterey, CA for the 2018 ECEDHA Annual Conference and Expo. For the first time in its 34 years, those who communicate the messages of their respective ECE departments across the nation were invited to join. Though the titles varied from communications officer, specialist, manager and director, the responsibilities were very much the same – sharing the stories of our faculty, students, and alumni to a wide variety of audiences through many different channels.

We are the story tellers and had come together to sharpen our skills, learn from best practices, and be introduced to a new branding strategy developed by Tailfin Marketing to raise the visibility of the field of ECE to prospective students and the general public. Through the efforts of Catharine June from the University of Michigan and Ashlee Gardner from Georgia Tech, an ECE communicators group (we now like to call our Tribe) was formed.

The group was introduced to a branding toolkit and we were quickly put to the test to develop a poster, within 15 minutes, to promote current research within our departments and present our ideas to the group. At first it seemed a little overwhelming but to all of our relief it was actually quite easy and fun by using the creative framework. And it helps when you have great stories to tell that build on the ECE concepts of “magic, daring and limitless applications.”

It’s ECE’s time to shine and we, as ECE story tellers, are now better prepared to spread the word of the vast opportunities a career in the field can provide.

I’ll wrap up my guest blog post with the following ECE Brand Manifesto courtesy of Tailfin Marketing.

You may think that ECE is magic – and it kind of is.

Because ECE is filled with daring visionaries and bright minds who engage, imagine and invent.

We are the masters of power and energy and light and systems that can turn science fiction into living, breathing science.

We are the force that connects people and technologies with elegant devices that fit in the palm of your hand and colossal systems that are beyond imagination.

We are the spark, the energy, and the catalyst – the generators of ideas, champions of possibility and the fuel for change.

We dream big, bet big, and see it through, because we know it’s our job to help shape a better world for all.

Is that magic? Almost. And we’d love to show you how it works.

Lisa

Lisa Hitch
Business Manager and Technical Communications Specialist
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Postcard from California

Golden Gate Bridge

All this week I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area, either accompanying the Michigan Tech student group on their Silicon Valley Experience, or off doing side visits to alumni and companies on my own. Monday evening the students and I attended a delightful Michigan Tech alumni reception, hosted by Dave House on his beautiful hilltop property in Saratoga overlooking all of Silicon Valley. The weather was cool and rainy, as it has been all week; all of our hosts apologized even though no one is complaining since they can really use the rain. Tuesday the group visited Google, HP, Nvidia, and Facebook, and Wednesday we visited the Ford research facility in Palo Alto before I peeled off to do my own thing. It is always good to see the world beyond the Baraga Plain, and to get a sense of the culture that many of our graduates will be entering.

I have come away from this trip with a few impressions to share with you.

First, deep learning is everywhere. Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, made that point when he visited Michigan Tech last September, and it has certainly been in evidence at the companies we have visited. As a case in point, when we went to Nvidia, easily the most electronic hardware-oriented of any of the places we visited, the presentation from HR stated that 90% of their hiring is in “EE, CS, CpE, and ML/DL”, the latter being an acronym for “Machine Learning/Deep Learning” that everyone here seems to understand. Nvidia is primarily known for its graphical processing unit (GPU) hardware, but it is the advances in computing power represented by their hardware that makes today’s deep learning possible. Thus, it makes sense for them to show the connection between the two, in applications such as real-time processing for autonomous vehicles. All the big players are jockeying for position in artificial intelligence and machine learning, looking for the competitive advantage that such technologies can bring to their products and systems. This is not easy material to master, but if you can prove that you are an expert, probably at the PhD level and with several years of good experience to back it up, you can write your own ticket. This has actually created something of a crisis in academic computer science circles, as the research in artificial intelligence has become privatized and universities cannot compete on salaries.

Despite the strong economy and the high demand for computer scientists and engineers, it’s still not that easy to get a job here. Hiring managers have high standards, and you really need to know your stuff. Most interviews are pretty arduous, with multiple stages and with batteries of technical tests that one has to go through. I have heard multiple references to a book titled “Cracking the Coding Interview” by Gayle Laakmann McDowell, which is now in its 6th edition and has become a guidebook for those looking to run the Silicon Valley gauntlet. Overall I think it is good thing that the better companies are not willing to compromise on quality in this job market. Certainly it is good for us in academia who are trying to motivate students to do their best. A diploma alone isn’t going to cut it; one really has to put in the work and develop the skills and knowledge that that diploma represents.

A third impression was really just a confirmation of a bias that I have had for many years, but it really seemed to come through loud and clear. We heard in meeting after meeting that the best preparation for a career leading to technical management, leadership, or entrepreneurship, starts with a technical degree in engineering or computer science, in most cases leading to a first job that is also technical in nature. There are no shortcuts here. We saw plenty of examples where the actual subject matter of the undergraduate degree was not closely related to the work 20 years later: the Assistant Treasurer for risk and strategy at Alphabet (parent company of Google), someone who is responsible for billions of dollars in investments, holds a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan Tech. Likewise the person in charge of global supply chain for HP, Inc., holds a Michigan Tech BS in Electrical Engineering. At every turn we heard that a technical background teaches one how to think analytically and quantitatively and how to solve problems, and that those skills will serve you well no matter where your career takes you. There is no rule that says that someone with an engineering education will be an engineer for the rest of his or her life, but it is absolutely a great way to start out. I have written it here before, but it bears repeating: build your house on rock, not on sand.

Finally, I learned that the companies that are really successful are the ones that think long-term and are willing to take risks. This is the key to the meteoric success of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, companies that are not thinking about next year or 5 years from now, but 100 years from now. When they see the right opportunity, they are willing to place their bets and not insist on an immediate payoff. This is not to say they are foolhardy however. Our contact at Google reinforced something I remember vividly from the book How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, which is that in those boardrooms, decisions are based on data. One never goes to a meeting at Google to argue for some new initiative without the data to back it up. Of course, this requires that the company have experiments going all the time to generate that data, and this is one of the reasons there are so many opportunities for Google employees to have their own little side projects. Obviously this is a very engineering approach to corporate long-term strategy, but it certainly seems to be working for them.

Taking the long view, being willing to be bold and take risks, making decisions using data and careful analysis – sounds to me like pretty good advice for a university like Michigan Tech.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Postcard from Colorado

Fuhrmann at Steamboat Resort

Even department chairs get to take a break every once in a while. Here is a photo taken on Thursday, March 8, on the slopes of Steamboat ski resort in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This is my second time at this resort – the first time was last year – and I just love it.

One of the things in my personal life that I enjoy most about moving to Houghton some ten years ago is that it has rekindled in me an appreciation for outdoor winter sports. I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing at Steamboat if it weren’t for our little ski hill in Houghton, Mont Ripley, which is owned and run by Michigan Tech. It is only 450 feet vertical and has two chair lifts and a T-bar, but the lake effect snow we get is every bit as good as what you will find in the big resorts out west. What it lacks in size it makes up for in convenience. I can go over on the weekends or after work and practice my technique (which still needs a lot of work) or just have fun. I started going my second year at Tech, first with rental equipment, then buying my own inexpensive gear at a ski swap, and later getting even better equipment as the years went by and it became obvious to my family how much I was enjoying it. This year I even took lessons from ski instructor Dan Dalquist, who is terrific and helped me a lot. So, kudos to Nick Sirdenis and his whole crew over at Mont Ripley: you do a great job and help make Michigan Tech the unique place that it is. Keep up the good work!

– Dan

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


Pearce Gives Invited Talk on Cutting Lab Costs

Joshua Pearce
Joshua Pearce

Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) gave an invited talk on “How to Eviscerate Lab Costs: Advances in Materials, Electronics and 3-D Printing for Scientific Equipment” for the Industrial Engineering program at the University of Trento, Trento Italy, last Wednesday, (Feb. 21, 2018).

Notables

Red Hat, a $2.9 billion per year open-source software company, honored Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) as one of eight instructors globally who champion open source education. Read more here.


Fridays with Fuhrmann: New Online Program

renderedI am delighted and excited to announce the launch of a new venture in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan Tech. In September 2018, the ECE Department, in partnership with the online education support company Keypath Education, will begin delivering a new set of online courses leading to the MSEE degree, with an emphasis in communications and signal processing.

Distance education is not new to the ECE Department. Over 15 years ago, ECE faculty members Bruce Mork and Leonard Bohmann recognized a workforce need in the utility power industry for advanced education in power and energy, and proceeded to create online versions of all our senior and graduate-level in that area. Graduate students with an interest in power and energy could take all the courses they needed for the MSEE degree online. The online courses were offered in tandem with our on-campus courses through lecture capture, at first in dedicated studios and more recently in self-service classrooms. Although enrollment has tailed off in the past couple of years, those courses were very well-received and the program met its objectives. I thank Bruce and Leonard for all their hard work and congratulate them on a job well done.

This new program is something quite different. The world of online education has changed considerably in the past decade, and so have the expectations of our students. In this new program, we are moving away from the lecture capture model, and will use the latest technology and pedagogical theory for distance education to create web-based products that are polished and professional and meet modern production standards. We need help doing that, and this is where Keypath comes in. They will help us create the delivery mechanism for the courses, and in addition they will help with the marketing of the program, the recruiting of new students, and the online tech support for those students once they get in the program. The content of the courses is entirely the responsibility of Michigan Tech faculty, and we will retain all the rights to that intellectual property.

Given my musical inclinations I make the analogy that our traditional methods of classroom teaching are kind of like playing in a bar band. We show up, well-prepared most of the time, and give a performance that can be polished or a little rough on occasion. The most important responsibility is to make sure we are ready on the day of the lecture, even if next week’s lectures aren’t quite ready yet. If we teach the same course year after year, we give the same performance over and over to different audiences, with the material evolving and our understanding of that material deepening over time.

Putting together an online course in today’s market is more akin to going into the recording studio and cutting an album. We need to have a vision for the complete course, from soup to nuts, and the full package needs to be ready to go on Day 1 of the semester. When you go into the studio, you bring the producer and the recording professionals in with you, and it becomes a team effort. The Keypath team will be our producers.

There will be a lot of time spent on course development and all the little pieces that go into the web-based delivery mechanisms. This is going to be new for me, so I can’t even speak with authority about all those delivery mechanisms. I understand that the 60-minute or 90-minute talking head lecture is gone, and instead we will have a series of smaller modules with plenty of opportunity for the students to engage with the material as it is presented. We will also work hard to make sure that all the courses use a common set of online tools and have the same look and feel, so that we present a unified and coherent program that does not put the student on a steep learning curve with every new course, just to learn the mechanics. There are implications for the workload model in the department, as I will have to give credit for time spent developing a new course before it is offered the first time. That is going to be new for us too.

We selected communications and signal processing as a technical sub-area within EE for this new venture, for several reasons. First, this is an area where we anticipate high workforce demand. As we move further and faster into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the era of the Internet of Things, electrical engineers need to know how to acquire digital data, process it, merge it with other data, and design systems that allow for the communication of that data over complex global networks. This need cuts across all industry sectors and all applications of electrical engineering, and is very closely related to robotics, automation, and control which I wrote about in my most recent column. Second, we think the material will lend itself well to online learning, as it is mostly theoretical with the applications either implemented or simulated with computer models. Finally, it turns out just by coincidence that the faculty members in the ECE Department with the most enthusiasm about trying these new methods of course delivery, including Tim Schulz, Mike Roggemann, Glen Archer, and myself, are all in signal processing. It just seemed to make the most sense all the way around.

I won’t go into all the details of the degree program, but I will mention one feature that comes right up front for new students. We have been finding recently a wide disparity in the skill levels in mathematical analysis and computer programming among our incoming MSEE students, and that has created problems for what the instructors can reasonably expect in our more advanced courses. That observation was made independently from the exploration of the new online program, so it was just serendipity that we started thinking about ways to address it at the same time we started the conversations with Keypath. The result is a new course, EE5300 Mathematical and Computational Methods in Engineering, that will be the entry point for the all new students. It is not communications and signal processing per se, but it will provide many of the tools in the toolkit for engineers that work in this area. More importantly, it will ensure that all of our students are on a level playing field as they enter the heart of the program. I think this new course, which still needs to be developed, is critical to the success of the new program and so we will put a lot of time and resources into making sure it is done right. It is the only course in the new program being offered in September 2018 – others will come along in January 2019 and later as the program really gets rolling.

I want to thank all those who have helped to get this venture off the ground, including the ECE Graduate Programs Committee, Dean Wayne Pennington in the College of Engineering, Provost Jackie Huntoon, and of course all of our new best friends at Keypath. I should also mention that a parallel program is being put together in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with an emphasis on structures, and the group conversations with CEE have been helpful as well. No one can say for certain where this will lead, but we are jumping in with both feet. I think it is important for the department, and it is important for Michigan Tech when one considers both our geographical location and the role that we play in economic development for Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and indeed the entire U.S. That’s why I am excited about this – it is a new and hopefully effective way of fulfilling our mission, educating the next generation of engineers and supporting them as they enter the workforce.

I guess a little marketing is in order. For anyone reading this who holds an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering or a related field, and can see value in expanding your skills in communications and signal processing, we would love to have you be a part of this. I can guarantee you all the challenges, rewards, and technical rigor of a Michigan Tech education. With all the new delivery methods on the horizon, that is the one thing that is not going to change.

For more information see Michigan Tech Partners with Keypath Education to Serve Professional Engineers

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: EEs in the Driver’s Seat

FWF-image-20180126Last week I made a short trip down to SW Michigan, to visit some of our industrial partners, and to pay visits to some old friends and new colleagues. It was my first time in that part of the state and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Upon arrival in Grand Rapids, I picked up my rental car which turned out to be a new Volvo station wagon, and I got a quick lesson on where things are headed with autonomous vehicles. When I merged onto the highway and turned on the cruise control, I quickly figured out that it had a feature called “adaptive cruise control.” This is where the vehicle measures the distance to the vehicle in front using radar, and adjusts the speed as necessary to maintain a minimum distance between the two, where the safe following distance depends on the speed. I was familiar with this as I had experienced it once in a rental car about a year ago, on vacation in Colorado. At that time, I did not know quite what was happening and actually thought the cruise control was broken as the car kept slowing down on I-70 with lots of traffic. It was only when I got out on a two-lane highway, with just me and the car in front, that I figured out what was going on, and was amazed at how well it worked. On this latest trip, I felt I was already an old pro at adaptive cruise control, but was amazed all over again when I realized the Volvo was driving itself! This is another new feature called “pilot assist” that uses both video cameras and radar sensors to keep the vehicle in the center of the lane. It was kind of spooky at first when I realized that the steering wheel was moving on its own, ever so slightly, but again it was remarkable how well it worked. This was at night, in good weather and on a clear highway with bright white stripes reflecting my headlights, so it was not a challenging control scenario. Even so, I was impressed at how smooth and steady the vehicle was going right down the middle of the lane. I could even take my hands off the wheel entirely! It would issue a little warning after about 15 seconds, and then I would have to put my hands on the wheel again or just tap it gently to keep the system engaged. I guess it just wanted to be reassured that I was still there.

Adaptive cruise control and pilot assist are examples of what the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) calls Level 2 autonomy. They define 6 different levels of autonomy, from 0 to 5, with 0 being no autonomy whatsoever (i.e. old-fashioned human driving) and 5 being total autonomy in all conditions. Level 2 autonomy includes these kinds of driver assist technologies that can partially take over the accelerator, brakes, and steering for relatively simple tasks, with the expectation that the driver is paying attention at all times. I hope that is a realistic expectation. I have to confess, the pilot assist feature really did make it easier for me to eat lunch in the car. We are not close to Level 5 autonomy yet, but auto manufacturers are making progress at a pretty good clip, and there are optimistic projections on when we might see Level 4 cars on the road. A lot of people are pretty nervous about the prospect of autonomous vehicles. My guess is that we will get used to them not all at once, but rather one feature at a time like in my experience with the rental car. It will come with a pull, not a push: drivers will see how easy it is to use the new-fangled technology and how it makes their lives better, and then they will be demanding more and more.

This is as good a place as any to put in a plug (again) for our Robotics Systems Enterprise. Michigan Tech is one of eight North American universities participating in the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge, a collegiate competition in which students will integrate sensors and develop the control algorithms to take an existing vehicle (a Chevy Bolt) and make it autonomous. This is an interesting step for SAE, which has a lot of automotive collegiate competitions; Michigan Tech mechanical engineers participate in several and do very well. In the AutoDrive Challenge, the automotive powertrain is off limits; the students have access electronically only to the accelerator, brakes, and steering, and beyond that it’s all about the sensors and controls. This creates a lot more opportunities for participation by electrical engineers, computer engineers, and computer science students. The Michigan Tech team is hosted in the Robotics System Enterprise, led by ECE faculty member Dr. Jeremy Bos and ME-EM faculty member Dr. Darrell Robinette. I am looking forward to witnessing the Year 1 competition in Yuma, Arizona, at the end of this semester, and I am quite certain you will read about it here.

FWF-image-pic2-20180126My automobile experience was only one of several times on this trip when I was reminded about the opportunities for electrical engineers in the area of controls. The industrial partners I visited confirmed for me what I have seen and heard many times before at Career Fair and with our External Advisory Committee, that automation is everywhere and that electrical engineers who have controls expertise are in high demand. This is one of the reasons we took our controls course in the EE curriculum, moved it to the junior level, and made it a required course. This is a good time to be studying electrical engineering and entering the job market, and graduates who can claim some expertise and experience with control systems will find many more doors opening up.

Electrical engineering is a huge field of course, and even within the sub-field of controls there are several flavors. At one end of the spectrum we have industrial control systems, where the tool of choice is the Programmable Logic Controller, or PLC. Such systems are found in factories and other industrial facilities like steel mills and chemical process plants, and in buildings with elevators and air conditioners. Some electrical engineers find that PLCs lack the mathematical complexity that might make them interesting, but as far as I am concerned, anything worth doing is worth doing well. If engineers and engineering students see a need that is addressed with a certain technology, and see challenges and rewards working in that field, then they should be encouraged to do so as long as they do a good job. Michigan Tech has a two-semester PLC course sequence, cross-listed between the ECE Department and the School of Technology, taught in a beautiful new facility that was renovated with gift funds from Nucor Steel.

“Traditional” or “classical” control theory often involves the electrical control of mechanical systems, and so is taught in EE and ME departments, and it shows up in almost all engineering disciplines in one form or another. The typical paradigm involves a “plant” – something to be controlled, like a motor – along with sensors that measure what the plant is doing, and actuators that control its behavior. The sensor outputs are fed into a control algorithm which also has inputs indicating the desired plant behavior, and this in turn determines the actuator signals that tell the plant what to do, creating what is called a “feedback control system.” Understanding how such systems work requires a lot of the mathematical machinery taught in undergraduate EE and ME curricula, such as differential equations, Fourier and Laplace transforms, and complex analysis. Feedback control systems show up all the time in the natural and biological world – think of birds flying or your heart beating – and many of our solutions to technological problems mimic that behavior.

More recently we have seen the emergence of control algorithms and control systems that are driven by complex computer algorithms, such as those from the worlds of artificial intelligence and machine learning, that are highly complex and cannot be boiled down to a few mathematical equations as is often the case in classical control theory. Systems that have both cognitive and physical attributes like this are called “cyber-physical systems.” These control systems have seen explosive growth in recent years, due in large part to the speed and power of computing systems that are just now getting to the point where the algorithms can reasonably be expected to work on practical time scales. The autonomous vehicle is the most prominent example of a cyber-physical system in today’s culture, with all of the cognitive processing that has to take place between the cameras, radars, and lidars (the sensors) and the steering, accelerator, and brake (the actuators). The emergence of cyber-physical systems has greatly elevated the importance of computing and computer science in engineering applications, a trend that I believe merits close attention at Michigan Tech and similar educational institutions.

The next time you are out driving, pay attention to all the human processing you are doing to keep your vehicle going where you want, at the speed you want. There is a lot happening there. Now think about how we might mimic that with cameras and computers. It is scary and exciting all at the same time, but there is little doubt that the day is coming when the computer/electrical/mechanical control system will be doing more and the human less, not just in cars but in everything we get our hands on. It is a golden opportunity for today’s students in electrical and computer engineering. I hope they make the most of it.

– Dan

p.s. thanks to ECE faculty member Jeff Burl for bringing Yoda’s sage advice to my attention.

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Bright Spots In The Winter

Photo by Hailey Hart
Photo by Hailey Hart

Today is the last day of winter break before classes start for the Michigan Tech “spring” semester, not counting the upcoming three-day holiday weekend. It still looks very much like winter outside, although we got a short-lived January thaw in the middle of this past week. A winter warm-up always reveals a lot of mud, muck, and other detritis, so despite the driving difficulties and public school closings, a fresh snowfall always brightens things up a bit. I thought this might be a good opportunity to mention a couple of other things that have brightened my day recently.

Our teaching evaluations for the Fall 2017 semester came back, and I was very pleased to see how well the department did in the eyes of our students. These evaluations are conducted online, before final exams, and consist of a series of survey questions with answers on a 1-to-5 scale. When we are boiling down the results, we typically look at one particular question that asks how strongly the student agrees with the statement “Taking everything into account, I consider this instructor to be an excellent teacher.” The department-wide average on this one question was 4.35, and the median was 5: 55% of the respondents indicated “Strongly Agree” with this statement. We also look closely at the average of 7 questions that deal with more the details on how the course is organized and taught – the so-called “Average of 7 Dimensions” – and on this one our average score across all respondents was 4.32. These results include courses taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty, our non-tenure-track faculty, and even the labs taught by our teaching assistants. It is the best we have done since the Fall 2014 semester, when we first started the online surveys and aggregated results were made available. Naturally I am very pleased to see this, and the timing couldn’t be better, as we are seeing an increase in our undergraduate enrollments in ECE. Of course, there may be other factors at play – the strong job market for EEs and CpEs might just be putting our students in a good mood when they fill out the surveys. I didn’t talk to a single ECE graduate at the December commencement who didn’t have a job lined up! Nevertheless, I will take what I can get, and congratulate the department faculty on a job well done.

Congratulations as well go to Assistant Professor Sumit Paudyal on the recent announcement of his National Science Foundation CAREER award. This is a 5-year grant that goes to early-career faculty in the U.S. that show exceptional scholarly promise. Prof. Paudyal’s project is titled “Operation of Distribution Grids in the Context of High-Penetration Distributed Energy Resources and Flexible Loads”, and in it he will bring state-of-the-art theoretical and computational tools in optimization (particularly mixed-integer second order cone programming, or MISOCP) and in robust and distributed control to the problem of managing the large and growing number of distributed energy resources and flexible loads in next-generation energy systems. Sumit was hired five years ago under a special Michigan Tech Strategic Faculty Hiring Initiative (SFHI) in Next-Generation Energy Systems, and this has turned out to be an excellent hiring decision for Michigan Tech. About a year ago I wrote about all four of our assistant professors in the ECE Department, and with this turn of events I can now announce that all four have garnered prestigious early-career awards – three NSF CAREER awards and one Air Force Young Investigator awards. Nice going Sumit and all!

Finally, this week I was especially pleased to learn that Lisa Hitch, the ECE Business Manager and Technical Communication Specialist, was recognized for her service to Michigan Tech and the ECE Department with the “Making A Difference” award, in the category “Above and Beyond.” This is an annual award organized by the Michigan Tech Staff Council; there were 47 nominations and 7 award winners across 6 categories. Lisa and all the award winners were recognized in a special ceremony this past Wednesday, with the award presented by university president Glenn Mroz. Lisa really does go “above and beyond” for the ECE Department, in ways too numerous to mention but one in particular being to help me push this column out every week. The award is extremely well-deserved and so Lisa, thank you for everything you do!

First day of classes next Tuesday. Start your engines everyone!

– Dan

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