Fridays with Fuhrmann: A New Year

image_20170106Happy New Year once again to all the followers of the ECE Department at Michigan Tech! Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and productive 2017.

I learned earlier this week that 2017 is a prime number. 2016, on the other hand, has prime factors 2,2,2,2,2,3,3,7. I presume this means we can expect 2017 to be far less divisive than 2016. (I wish I could say I made that up. Credit goes to engineer and comedian Don McMillan, from his weekly e-mail blast.)

Houghton is in the grips of a week-long snow event, not all that unusual for this time of year. Temperatures have dipped down into the positive single digits, and we are getting a slow but steady influx of lake-effect snow. At these temperatures the snow is really light and powdery, so much so that you barely see it in front of your face, until you look up and realize the visibility is like a quarter mile, almost like fog. We can tell it is lake effect snow, since every once in a while one can see the sun trying to poke through. Essentially since there are no clouds – just snow. The skiing should be amazing this weekend if this ever lets up.

I heard about someone in town who has a Dalmatian who got lost out on the ski trails during the heaviest part of the storm. It hasn’t been spotted since. (OK, that one I did make up.)

All seriousness aside…

Let’s talk about resolutions for the new year. I have my personal ones, given some extra weight by the fact that I have a milestone birthday coming up in 2017. We don’t need to go into details; they can best be summarized as “be a better human being.”

In the ECE Department, a good new year’s resolution would be the continued pursuit of, and a renewed commitment to, our strategic goals. Strategic planning and goal setting are part of what we do all the time, in an effort to be the best organization we know how to be. We seek to offer technically challenging and economically relevant educational programs for all our students, and to have those programs undergo a process of continuous improvement. In our research activity we want to provide meaningful solutions for some of our nation’s most pressing technological problems. In both domains, teaching and research, we want to be recognized for our accomplishments, like all academic departments. I believe that the recognition isn’t nearly as important as what we do, but on the other hand without the recognition it is difficult to attract the students and research funding that allow us to continue our work. Prospective students find out about us and judge us by things like the U.S. News and World Report rankings and similar measures, so if we are going to have the opportunity to make a difference in the world then we need to be well-positioned in such rankings.

Right now the ECE Department is nearing the end of a 3-year goal cycle, and in the middle of drafting the strategic goals and a strategic plan for the next three years (these cycles coincide with appointment term of the chair.) Our current goals are grouped into three categories: 1) faculty success and recognition, 2) quality and impact of graduate programs, and 3) quality and impact of undergraduate programs. There are a number of individual sub-goals within those three groups. I will not list all the sub-goals; although they are not secret in any way, they are really more appropriate for internal deliberations, and for discussion with groups like our ECE External Advisory Committee. I will say that some of the goals are fairly straightforward and easy, while others are “stretch” goals that give us something challenging to shoot for – like the size and funding levels for our PhD program, for example.

For most of the faculty our goals are fairly high level and appear somewhat disconnected from what we really get out of bed to do, day in and day out. For example, it is hard to think about a goal of an undergraduate enrollment of N students when one has to prepare the next lecture or grade a stack of exams. However, we all need to remember that “every little bit helps.” If we approach every task, no matter how large or small, with a commitment to quality and excellence then the sum of the parts will be a thriving department.

Sometimes there are critically important tasks that come along that are not really reflected in the goals at all. We have one of those task before us this year – our accreditation by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. ABET is the independent organization that certifies the quality and consistency of all undergraduate engineering programs in the country, and every six years we have to go through an extensive process demonstrating that our Michigan Tech programs meet national standards for technical rigor and professional relevance. We are preparing all this year, and our efforts will culminate in a lengthy self-study report and a personal review by ABET visitors sometime in the fall. I am happy to say that we were successful in our last visit, in 2010, but of course we will need to work just as hard this year to ensure the same level of success. I am confident that, with the concerted efforts of our ECE ABET Coordinator, John Lukowski, the College of Engineering Associate Dean Leonard Bohmann, and the full and enthusiastic cooperation of all the ECE faculty and staff we will do just fine. So, right up there with our strategic goals, I am putting ABET accreditation on the list of new year’s resolutions for the ECE Department.

I hope all readers are successful with your own resolutions this year. I also hope that those resolutions include some form of engagement with the Michigan Tech ECE Department. Let me know what I can do to help!

– Dan

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


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