Author: Lisa Hitch

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Creating excitement in STEM

FWF_image_20161202Here we are at the first of December, when thoughts turn to final exams, mid-year commencement, holiday parties (lots of holiday parties) and the winter break. Usually this time of year brings plenty of snow, but not so this year. We have had one of the warmest, driest falls on record, and we are just now starting to get a snow covering that looks like it might stick around for a while. A few more days of this, though, and folks (including me) will be ready to start cross-country skiing. It doesn’t take much. Mont Ripley, Michigan’s downhill ski area, is another story. Last year they opened on Christmas, which was pretty late, and I’m not even sure they are going to make that this year. We have a lot of snow to make up if we are going to hit the Farmer’s Almanac predictions for this year!

It takes a great deal of people and organizations, all across the university, to offer a successful educational program in electrical and computer engineering. This week I thought I would give a special mention to Michigan Tech’s Center for Pre-College Outreach. This is the group that is responsible for making sure that we get the message out to middle school and high school students, sometimes even younger, about the excitement and the opportunities in STEM fields. Part of the mission is recruiting for Michigan Tech, to be sure, but there is also a component which provides a tremendous service by getting kids excited about science and technology, no matter where they end up going to college. The Center is run by Cody Kangas; from everything I have seen, Cody and his team are doing a fantastic job.

One of the main events in the Center’s portfolio is something called Mind Trekkers. This is Michigan Tech’s “road show” in which student volunteers go out and fill up large spaces, indoor and outdoor, with experiment and demonstrations designed to get kids excited and have fun. The demos include blowing things up in trash cans, making weird goop with corn starch, freezing balloons with liquid nitrogen, making art with magnets and iron filings, that sort of thing. I was aware of the program and had seen some presentations about it, but I never really understand the scale of one of these Mind Trekker events until I attended one about a month ago at Schoolcraft College, in Livonia, Michigan, as part of a longer trip to southeast Michigan. This was really an eye-opener for me. Schoolcraft is a good-sized community college in the suburban Detroit area, and they were kind enough to open up a large indoor event center, large outdoor area with a tent, and multiple smaller indoor spaces for this event. This one was specifically targeted at middle school students, and there were about 2000 kids bused in from all over the area. I walked around, watched the demos, and picked up on the incredible energy from that of many pre-teens. I was very pleasantly surprised to see many ECE students among the volunteers, and made a special effort to thank all of them for being there. It really gave me new-found respect for all the hard work being done in student-focused areas of the university outside the academic departments.

Another very successful program run out of the Center for Pre-College Outreach is the Summer Youth Programs (SYP). These are programs that bring middle school and high school students to the Michigan Tech campus for a week, sort of like summer camp, and get them engaged in a variety of technical activities. Here we can do things that look a little more like real engineering. The ECE Department participates actively in SYP, due in large part to the hard work of Dr. Glen Archer, Principal Lecturer and Associate Chair of the department. We have also been fortunate for the past several years to have ECE PhD student Jennifer Winikus organizing and delivering a lot of the ECE summer youth classes. Jenn just completed her PhD, and has moved on to a teaching position at the University of Buffalo. I am pretty certain her summer youth experience, as well as her experience as a teaching assistant in our regular undergraduate teaching laboratories, will serve her well in her new position. In addition to his work with summer youth, Glen Archer serves as the faculty mentor for the both the Blue Marble Security Enterprise and the Robotic Systems Enterprise, and he has organized outreach teams in both. Glen is passionate about spreading the word about electrical and computer engineering, and getting our students involved in doing the same. We are lucky to have him – he brings a lot of positive energy to the department.

Hats off and Happy Holidays to all who work on behalf of our current and future Huskies!

– Dan

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

Kyle Ludwig named University Innovation Fellow

Computer engineering major Kyle Ludwig
Computer engineering major Kyle Ludwig

Three Michigan Tech students are among 169 students from 49 higher education institutions worldwide to be named University Innovation Fellows. They are: Rachel Kolb (MEEM), Kyle Ludwig (ECE), and Adam Weber (CNSA).

The University Innovation Fellows program empowers students to become agents of change at their schools. Fellows work to ensure that their peers gain the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to compete in the economy of the future and make a positive impact on the world. To accomplish this, the Fellows advocate for lasting institutional change and create opportunities for students to engage with innovation, entrepreneurship, design thinking and creativity at their schools.

Fellows design innovation spaces, start entrepreneurship organizations, host experiential learning events and work with faculty to develop new courses.

The program is run by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. With the addition of the new Fellows, the program has trained 776 students at 164 institutions since its creation.

Ludwig, a computer engineering major from Traverse City, Michigan is involved in Michigan Tech’s Entrepreneurs Club, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Undergraduate Advisory Board, and the Pavlis Honor’s College. Ludwig would like to use his education in computer engineering, along with his passion for health and fitness, to improve health using technology.

“We believe that students can be so much more than just the customers of their education. They can be leaders of change and they can co-design the higher education experience,” said Humera Fasihuddin, co-director of the University Innovation Fellows program.

“This core belief has driven the program since its inception, and we’ve seen the results of this belief put to action at schools around the world. Fellows are collaborating with their peers, faculty and administrators to create more educational opportunities for students at their schools. They are making measurable gains, both in the number of resources and the students served by the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

Individual Fellows as well as institutional teams of Fellows are sponsored by faculty and administrators and selected through an application process twice annually.

Throughout the year, they take part in events and conferences and have opportunities to learn from one another, Stanford mentors and leaders in academia and industry.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: A Tribute to Ted Grzelak

FWF_image_20161118Things are awfully quiet around Michigan Tech and the ECE Department today. For one thing, this is the Friday before Thanksgiving break, and there are no classes next week. For the faculty and staff the only official university holidays are Thursday and Friday, but a lot of people (including me) will take vacation in the early part of the week. Add to that the fact that firearm deer season began this past Tuesday, November 15. Opening day is an unofficial Yooper holiday (or, as it is referred to in the wildly quirky movie Escabana In Da Moonlight, “Christmas with guns”). The weather is turning sour – cold, misty rain – and it looks like we might get winter this year after all. So, people have lots of reason to be off-campus.

Today our community is saying goodbye to ECE Professor Emeritus Theodore “Ted” Grzelak, who passed away this past Sunday after a long illness. Ted was a faculty member here in the department from 1966 to 2000, and lived in the area after retirement. I did not know Ted, who retired well before my time here, but I am pretty sure our paths crossed at alumni events on campus. By all accounts he was a model citizen of the ECE Department, and a model citizen of Houghton and Hancock, very active in youth sports and in his church. His passion was more in teaching than in research, and he was a big part of moving the ECE Department in the direction of computer engineering over the course of his 34 years. Think of everything that happened in technology between 1966 and 2000, and imagine what it must have been like to be a part of that transformation. At his funeral, which I attended earlier today, there was much talk of how methodical and precise he was, traits that are often associated with electrical engineers and which a lot of electrical engineers admire. I think it is interesting that those characteristics are considered very good when we do what we do professionally (like design critical power or communication systems) but at the same time are used to make us look nerdy or awkward when those traits show up in social situations or interpersonal relations. I’m OK with all that – it goes with the territory.

As mentioned above we are moving into Thanksgiving break, so it is traditional to mention a few things we are grateful for. I know that, for a lot of people, heads are still spinning from the recent election, and with all the uncertainty in the air it is a little harder to reflect on our many blessings. Perhaps that is all the more reason to take a deep breath and put things in perspective. For my part, I am grateful for all the people and all the circumstances that have led me right to where I am today, working with an outstanding group of dedicated colleagues in a field where we get to “create the future” in two distinct and important ways – development of the technology that will improve lives and build the economy, and development of the next generation of talented young engineers who will come after us. It is an amazing opportunity and we should never lose sight of that. I hope that we are making Ted proud.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! FWF will (probably) take a break next week, so I’ll write again in December.

– Dan

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

Robotic Systems Enterprise hosts first annual Ford Controlathon

RSE-controlathonECE’s Robotic Systems Enterprise (RSE) was host to the first annual Controlathon sponsored by Ford Motor Company on Saturday, November 12. Ten teams competed in the inaugural one-day event held on the Michigan Tech campus, Memorial Union Building.

Ford’s purpose of the event was to raise the interest of controls engineers in the automotive industry. The students competed against each other as individuals or teams to see who could program an Arduino-based robot to complete pre-assigned tasks, such as solving a maze and following an object. The goal of the Controlathon was to create a unique solution to the presented problems in a limited amount of time. The teams were tasked to complete three separate events, scores were assigned for each event.

At the end of the day, Sirius Cybernetics came away with first place; 2nd Desert, 3rd 2CS & an EE, 4th C Dogs, and 5th place was Team Mine.

Ford representatives Jeffrey DuClos and Matt Alessi look on with team Sig-Cont-Rho-lers team members Libby Held, Dan Hannah, and Alex Miltenberger
Ford representatives Jeffrey DuClos and Matt Alessi look on with team Sig-Cont-Rho-lers team members Libby Held, Dan Hannah, and Alex Miltenberger

RSE is advised by Dr. Glen Archer.

Check out @mtuECE for more highlights from the event.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Stay Tuned

FWF_image_20161111Today’s column is going to be a bit on the short side – not because I don’t have enough to write about, but rather because I may have too much, and it needs a little refining.

I don’t want to use this space to be too political, but I will say that I was deeply affected by the results of Tuesday’s election. This is not a comment on the policies or the suitability or my own thoughts about either of the candidates. Rather, the vote Tuesday has given me the uncomfortable opportunity to reflect about what it means for education in this country, and what my colleagues and I do for a living day in and day out. Here is the short version: as a nation we have now heard the collective voice of a large group of people that have been either forgotten or ignored by our system of higher education. We really ought to take a moment to think about what that says about our society and where it is headed.

My ideas on this topic are half-baked at best, in fact the oven is barely warm. So, I’ll leave it there and return to this topic at a future date.

Meanwhile, life at Michigan Tech continues churning along. We are well past the halfway point in the semester, moving quickly toward the Thanksgiving break, and then the December endgame that happens when we return from that.

Today is Veterans Day, and I do want to recognize those members of the ECE faculty and staff that have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. They are: Glen Archer, Mike Chase, Roger Kieckhafer, Chris Middlebrook, Mike Roggemann, and Mark Sloat. Gentlemen, thank you for your service.

It has been an unusually warm fall this year, and that is continuing right into November. Two years ago at this time there was already snow on the ground that would not disappear until April. This past Sunday the temperatures soared into the 70s, and while I was out riding my bicycle I saw someone water skiing on the Portage. We live in interesting times.

– Dan

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Michigan Model

made-in-michgreenI can’t resist starting out this week’s column with a tip of the cap to the Chicago Cubs, baseball’s perennial losers who finally won the World Series. I think it is really a wonderful story. You have to realize, this comes from someone who lived in St. Louis for 24 years before coming to Michigan Tech, and is still a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan. The Cards and the Cubs are division rivals, big-time, and I’m sure there are plenty of old friends in St. Louis who would have been much happier to see the Cleveland Indians take it all. I can’t go that far. My loyalties remain with the National League, where they play baseball the way God intended, and you just have to be a little bit happy for a team that breaks a 108-year-old championship drought. I even tried to use the story this week as inspiration for a struggling student, citing the triumph of hope and optimism (I’m not sure it worked). Anyway, congratulations Cubbies and Cubs fans, we’ll see you next year.

The main thing on my mind this week is the question, as I mentioned last Friday, of whether or not the entrepreneurial success story of Silicon Valley can be recreated in other parts of the country, particularly Michigan and the larger Great Lakes region. This was the subject of a panel discussion led by our visitors in the 14 Floors program that I described last week. There was a lot of back and forth on the question, and I think the consensus at the end was that the whole Silicon Valley phenomenon is the result of a unique set of circumstances that are not being duplicated elsewhere. This is not to say, however, that other areas cannot learn from what has happened in California, and adapt the entrepreneurial spirit in ways that might be appropriate for them. I was very interested to be reminded that Michigan was very entrepreneurial in its own right, back in the early days of the automotive industry when there were a lot of small automobile manufacturers before the ascendancy of the Big 3. There is an awful lot of highly skilled engineering talent in the area – schools like Michigan Tech continue to add to that talent base – and thus there is every reason to believe that good things can happen here.

In discussions comparing California and Michigan technology and economics, one dominant theme always comes up: autonomous vehicles. Michigan is of course home to the U.S. auto industry, but the key role of computer science, software engineering, machine vision, robotics etc. in autonomous vehicles has led to a lot of development work in Silicon Valley. Google and Uber want to be in the self-driving car business, as is well-known. The Big 3 automakers also have technology developments efforts in California now; I am familiar with one such facility by Ford in Palo Alto, which is very impressive and is growing quickly in support of their “moon shot” to put a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021. I think this is a very smart move, combining the best of both worlds.

That being said, I do believe there is aspect to automotive design where the century-old Michigan model is still going to be very important: functional safety and reliability. It may sound a bit stodgy and conservative, but the slow, careful approach to getting it right the first time is going to be absolutely critical to the successful deployment of autonomous vehicles. I realize that Detroit has had its issues over the years, but in my experience the reliability of U.S. automobiles, especially in the last couple of decades, is nothing short of remarkable. With the exception of flat tires and dead batteries (seemingly insurmountable problems) one can count on properly maintained cars today to run the way they are supposed to. It’s probably been 30 years since I had an issue where an engine freaked out and left me stranded on the side of the road. I find this approach to reliability in stark contrast to the Silicon Valley model in which failure is not only an option, but a badge of honor on the path to entrepreneurial success.

The acceptance of flawed technology in our computer-dependent society is nowhere more evident than in the area of cybersecurity. Clearly, the original designers and visionaries in computer technology did not fully realize how easy it would be for bad actors to infiltrate the system and make computers do things that their legitimate owners and operators did not intend for them to do. We now are pushing toward the Internet of Things, or the Internet of Everything if you will. This is, or will be, a gigantic universal system of information and control that holds a lot of promise but at the same time is so riddled with security flaws that every thinking citizen should lie awake at night worrying about their family privacy, their financial integrity, and yes, the safety of their future autonomous vehicles. Consider how accepting we are today of a situation in which international hackers can steal e-mail from a major political organization, give or sell it to a third party, and exert a significant influence on a major U.S. election. This is normal? I am not suggesting that modern software designers are thoughtless or lazy, but I do think the modern push to “move fast and break things” has done exactly that, and now we have the system we have.

We have a chance to change the paradigm in the modern technology development in robotics, control, automation, cyber-physical systems, all those technologies that point toward the autonomous systems which are inevitably in our future. The new paradigm could borrow from the old paradigm of thoughtful, careful craftsmanship, one that asks the old question “if you don’t have time to do it right the first time, how are you going to find the time to fix it later?” The engineering design and manufacturing experience of Michigan and other supposedly “Rust Belt” areas might be the saving grace for autonomous systems that people will actually trust. Dare I say it? Others might do it fast, but Michigan can do it right.

[Credit where it is due: I have been influenced in my thinking on this topic by ECE Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos, who incidentally just received an Air Force Young Investigator Program (YIP) award. Congratulations and thank you Jeremy!]

– Dan

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

Elizabeth (Cloos) Dreyer ’12 receives SWE Outstanding Collegiate Member

Elizabeth Dreyer (l) receives award from Britta Jost '05
Elizabeth Dreyer (l) receives award from Britta Jost ’05

Elizabeth (Cloos) Dreyer, BSEE 2012, was selected SWE Outstanding Collegiate Member by the Society of Women Engineers for outstanding contribution to SWE, the engineering community and their campus. Dreyer was honored at the WE16 conference held in Philadelphia, PA this past week.

Elizabeth is an electrical engineering PhD candidate at University of Michigan.

The ECE Department at Michigan Tech congratulates Elizabeth for this well-deserved recognition!

CAT/SWE team takes 1st place at WE16

CAT/SWE (ECE) team members Derek Chopp, Ester Buhl, and Anna Marchesano
CAT/SWE (ECE) team members Derek Chopp, Ester Buhl, and Anna Marchesano
ECE’s Blue Marble Security (BMS) Enterprise team CAT/SWE took 1st place in the WE16 Team Tech Competition (sponsored by Boeing) this weekend.

The team’s project “Wheel Tractor Scraper Bowl Optimization System”, a joint venture between BMS (ECE) and Consumer Products Enterprise (Chemical Engineering), was sponsored by Caterpillar, Inc.

WE16 is the world’s largest conference and career fair for women in engineering and technology. Hosted by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and a number of corporate sponsors, WE16 provides inspiring and invaluable ways to connect, discover career opportunities and pursue professional development. This year the global gathering took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 27-29 with more than 9,000 attendees at all stages of their engineering careers.

The ECE Department congratulations the CAT/SWE team!

Fridays with Fuhrmann – 14 Floors starts with a solid foundation

HuskyIcon_TwoColorMy schedule has been pretty full this week. In the first part of the week we had our semi-annual visit by a group of advisors, mostly but not entirely from Silicon Valley, led by ECE alumnus and supporter Dave House. This group, all of whom are successful entrepreneurs in one way or another, come to town on a regular basis to advise and encourage us on a wide range of issues. The aim is to keep moving us forward along the path of transforming the university to one that can best meet the needs of students, industry, and our society in general in the 21st century. This was followed by a quick trip to the Detroit area where I am meeting with some of our industry partners, and also joining the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI), our research facility in Ann Arbor that was started with Dave’s financial support and which has been highly successful. That gives me a lot to write about but in the interest of brevity I should stick to one topic and save the rest for later.

Our Silicon Valley advisory group, and the full slate of activities for faculty and students that surrounds their visit including the spring break “Silicon Valley Experience” has come to be known by the name “14 Floors”, 14 being the atomic number for silicon. [Aside: some people are starting to refer to the San Francisco Bay Area as “Software Valley” in light of the rise of companies like Google and Facebook, and the fact that there is not nearly as much semiconductor manufacturing as there was in recent years.] Entrepreneurship is always a big theme of the visit, not surprising considering that 50% of the world’s venture capital is concentrated in the Valley, as we were told. Partly in the response to the group’s encouragement over the years, Michigan Tech has
done a lot to create programs that give students more exposure to management, leadership, and entrepreneurship. This has been going on a long time in our traditional Senior Design programs and our signature Enterprise program, and more recently with the establishment of a new academic unit, the Pavlis Honors College.

I should say a little bit about the composition of the group. Our visitors are held up as paragons of success, which is absolutely true, without question. We had seven visitors this time around. 4 out of the 7 are graduates of what was formerly the EE Department at Michigan Tech. There was one additional person who had to cancel for personal reasons at the last minute, and if he had been here it would have been 5 out of 8. 4 out of those 5 are members of the ECE Academy, one being inducted as recently as last August. The 5th – Paul Fulton – was inducted in a quick little ceremony we had Wednesday evening at the Continental Fire Company.

One thing that always strikes me when I consider this group – and I am thinking primarily of the five EEs – is that before they were managers, before they were leaders, before they were entrepreneurs, they were electrical engineers. They graduated from an intellectually rigorous academic program that emphasized technical skills almost exclusively. After graduation they entered the workforce and continued to hone those skills, each becoming an expert in his own area. It was only after they matured both technically and personally that they stepped up, took on more and more responsibility, and eventually became the leaders that they are today. Somehow I think this fact is lost on a part of our population of 18- to 22-year olds, and those that mentor them, many of whom seem to think there is a path to success in technological entrepreneurship that skips the technology part.

In the ECE Department we are pretty comfortable with the fact that our #1 job in undergraduate education is to give our students the absolutely best education in the technical side of electrical engineering and computer engineering that we possibly can. I believe that the industry demand for our graduates, the massive Career Fairs we have had on campus the past few years, and the 96.9% (self-reported) placement rate for ECE graduates, speaks for itself. The leadership and entrepreneurship piece, for those with the talent and the ambition, will come soon enough. I am a big believer in the notion of “paying your dues” – working hard, developing one’s craft day by day, and eventually gaining the credibility that allows one to move on to bigger and better things. My advice to our eager young students: build your house on rock, not on sand.

There are others who feel differently, and that’s fine – it’s a good and healthy debate. One of the great things about being at a place like Michigan Tech is that we can have those debates, and at the end of the day still go home friends.

Next week – can the Silicon Valley phenomenon be transplanted elsewhere – like in Michigan?

– Dan

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: ECE in the middle

FWF_image_20161021Those that have been following this column or the activities in the ECE Department know that I am really keen on beefing up our educational and research programs in robotics, control, autonomy, and mobility. I see this as a very important space for Michigan Tech, especially considering the university’s role, spelled out in our founding legislation, to support industry in the State of Michigan. As it turns out, there is already quite a bit going on; I just think we need to get it unified and a little better organized, and publicized as well.

I want to share an amusing anecdote with you, one that I think speaks to the important role that EE and ECE departments play in cyber-physical systems and everything that goes with them, like autonomous vehicles. I was wandering about the Internet a few days ago, looking for interesting tidbits related to robotics and control, and for some reason I decided to Google the phrase “computer control of mechanical systems.” The first search result turned out to be a course description for a senior-level course offered at the University of Illinois, with that exact title: ME 461, Computer Control of Mechanical Systems. I thought – interesting, let’s see what that is all about.

Here is the list of topics in said course, according to the web page:

• DC circuits.
• Analog and digital electronics.
• Sensors, transducers, and actuators.
• Data conversion and transmission.
• Microcontroller architecture.
• Microcontroller programming and interfacing.
• Response and control of electro-mechanical systems.
• Introduction to sampled time control theory.

Look at this carefully. I laughed out loud, literally, when I saw this outline. A course called “Computer Control of Mechanical Systems” is nothing more, or perhaps nothing less, than a survey course in electrical engineering!

What does this mean? For me, it says that the connection between computer algorithms and mechanical systems is in the domain of electrical engineering. We are the bridge that brings computational intelligence to rotating machinery. If CS is the brains and ME is the brawn, then ECE is the central nervous system.

ECE is front and center in the technological revolution of autonomy and mobility – well, perhaps “center” but maybe not so much “front.” A lot of what we do is in the background, perhaps because many of our efforts have been so successful that the results have been commoditized. This seems to be particularly true for the FIRST Robotics programs, a highly successful nationwide high-school competition intended to get students fired up about STEM fields. FIRST has been great for computer science and mechanical engineering, no doubt, but the EE glue that holds everything together doesn’t get quite the same visibility.

Robotics is really an amalgamation of CS, EE, and ME, and all three play different but critical roles. As was recently pointed out to me by one of our industry partners, the magic really happens when you get this trio to play nicely together. I will continue to work for that at Michigan Tech. Of course, in my role as ECE chair I will continue to advocate for electrical and computer engineering as a central player in this rapidly emerging field, and to be recognized as such.

[I should add that none of the above is meant to give a hard time to the University of Illinois, a fantastic institution with one of the best engineering schools in the country.]

Next week’s column will probably be written in a hotel room in Detroit, as I take this message on the road. Until then, have a great week everyone!

– Dan

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