Category Archives: Fridays with Fuhrmann

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Flash Floods and SISU

FWF-image-20180622Saturday night and early Sunday morning, June 16 and 17, Houghton County residents were kept awake by booming thunderstorms and torrential rains, and we arose Sunday morning to one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit this area. Major flash floods had washed out roads, destroyed homes, and left piles of mud and rocks in streets, driveways, and front yards. Agate Street in Houghton was completely ripped apart; the neighborhood at the base of Ripley Falls had become a boulder field. It was like nothing any of us had ever seen.

Weather reports said that some 4 to 8 inches of rain had fallen overnight, depending on the exact area. 6.72 inches of rain was reported in Hancock. All that water had to go somewhere, and it came rushing down the hills that line both sides of the Portage Canal, turning little creeks and drainages that I never even knew existed into unstoppable whitewater that ate up everything in its path.

Compared to many of the surroundings neighborhoods, the Michigan Tech campus got off pretty easy. In particular, the Electrical Energy Resources Center (EERC), the home building for the ECE Department, came out unscathed, for which I am grateful. However, the Administration Building, which sits at the bottom of Clark Street and right in the line of fire for one of the debris flows on the Houghton side, took a pretty bad hit. The campus was closed on Sunday and Monday, with the power turned off for a good portion of that time. The Admin building is still out of commission.

The emergency response from the university was pretty good. Everyone who was signed up for Safety First Alerts received regular notifications by phone and text, apprising us of the status of the university and the surrounding area. The predominant message was “do not come to campus” and for the most part, we didn’t.

I am not aware of any major damage sustained by ECE faculty, staff, and students, other than some flooded basements which are still no fun and will end up being a significant uninsured expense. I personally had no problems at my home in “Shopko Heights”; even though I live on the side of a hill, there are no ravines to channel the water. Others were not so lucky. Some of my Michigan Tech colleagues outside the ECE Department suffered significant property damage. The Portage Canal has turned completely brown from all the mud, and as of two days ago we are advised to avoid all water contact due to high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria.

There was one fatality from the storm, a truly tragic story out of Stanton Township which has saddened the entire community.

This sort of thing just doesn’t happen here, or so we thought. We are famous for our winters and lots of snow, and we have fun playing that up and making it sound apocalyptic, but the truth is that snow is pretty benign stuff and we know how to handle it. Our beautiful summers, something of a well-kept secret, are what many see as a reward for having made it through the winter. We are not supposed to have violent weather in the summertime, which makes last weekend’s storm even more of a shock.

Once we did get over the initial shock, the community began to pull together and the rebuilding effort began. We were visited by the Governor and our Senators and Representatives, and efforts are underway to secure federal disaster relief. Not waiting for that, though, neighbors are out helping neighbors clean up the mud and debris. Food and supplies are being donated in large quantities and warehoused in the Dee Stadium. Trucks and large earth-moving machinery can be seen hard at work all over. The major highways in and out of the area, some of which had major washouts and sinkholes, are already back open. Michigan Tech got into the act by opening up the locker rooms in the Student Development Complex (SDC) for anyone who needs a shower, no questions asked. President Mroz praised the “grit, determination, and heart” of everyone in the Houghton-Hancock area for pitching in and doing the right thing. I expected nothing less. While none of us ever want to see something like this happen it feels good to know that we have each others’ backs when times are tough.

Huskies outside the Copper Country can do their part too. I encourage you to visit the June 20 edition of Tech Today, which has a short article titled “How You Can Help”. Information is also available on the Michigan Tech news website.

In the meantime, almost ironically, the weather since Monday has been spectacularly beautiful, sunny and in the 70s. It may not be the way we planned, but perhaps we will enjoy the Keweenaw summer after all, as we work side by side to put our little town back together.

– Dan

[Bottom two photos courtesy of Adam Johnson, Brockit Inc.]

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Happy Trails President Mroz

FWF-20180614In just two short weeks, on July 1, 2018, we are going to see a major changing of the guard here at Michigan Tech. Glenn Mroz, university president for the past 14 years, will be returning to the faculty and Dr. Richard Koubek will be stepping in to take over as the chief executive officer. Simultaneously, four other individuals are moving into leadership positions: Dr. Janet Callahan, Dean of the College of Engineering; Dr. David Hemmer, Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts; Dr. Adrienne Minerick, Dean of the School of Technology; and Dr. Andrew Storer, Dean of the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. Drs. Callahan and Hemmer are joining Michigan Tech from outside, and Drs. Minerick and Storer are long-time Michigan Tech faculty members.

It is an exciting time, to be sure, a mix of optimism and nervous anticipation. Actually, the campus has been pretty quiet this June. Maybe it’s because of the beautiful weather and long days, or people are using up some vacation time before the big transition.

A week ago Thursday we held a big university-wide party in the lobby of the Rozsa Center, to recognize and thank Glenn and his wife Gail for all that they have done for the university. There was a great turnout, including members of the Board of Trustees from out of town, along with a pre-recorded video message from Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Dining Services pulled out all the stops with their food and drink, and music from guitarist and retiring Jazz Program Director Mike Irish added a nice touch too. Speeches were heartfelt and mercifully short. The Mrozes were presented with a pair of beautiful Michigan Tech chairs by Board President Terry Woychowski. The mood was upbeat and cheerful as you can imagine, and the admiration and love of the community for Glenn and Gail was on full display.

Glenn has been president for my entire 10 years on the job in the ECE Department, so I do not know Michigan Tech without him. I first met Glenn and Gail during my interview trip in 2008. Tim Schulz, the Dean of the College of Engineering at the time, realized that we were all traveling to Houghton on the same flight the night before, and he asked them to be on the lookout for me. I’ll never forget it – I was hanging out in one of the little gate areas on Concourse A or B in the Minneapolis airport, eating an orange while I waited for the flight. I had sticky orange juice all over my hands when this man walked up and said “Hi, I’m Glenn Mroz, President of Michigan Tech. You must be Dan.” Oops. We had a good laugh (I think) and made small talk for a while, after I got myself cleaned up.

If I could summarize my impression of President Mroz over these past ten years I would say that his passion for Michigan Tech, both as an academic institution and as a community, has been the driving force behind everything he has done. He has overseen a successful capital campaign, guided the university in the growth of his research activity, and helped to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. Many people have commented that he has moved Michigan Tech to “the next level” and that we are contributing to Michigan, the U.S., and the world in more ways than we did 10 or 20 years ago. His leadership style was highly personal. He was on a first-name basis with everyone he saw regularly, including me and good part of the student body as well. Not everyone agreed with every decision he made, which would be impossible, but I do not know anyone who did not like and respect him, or felt uncomfortable being around him. He was a Husky through and through. Michigan Tech is a better place because of his leadership, and if we continue on our current trajectory of excellence in technological education and research it will be due in no small measure to his example, his hard work, and his vision.

Glenn, thank you for everything you have done for Michigan Tech. I am happy that I know you, and I am proud to have served under you. Enjoy the next few years and the time off that you so richly deserve. I hope that, as you keep an eye on things from a more distant perch, you will be able to take pride in what you started and that we live up to your expectations. On behalf of everyone in the ECE Department, all the best!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: One View of Engineering and Computing

FWF-20180525-photoGreetings everyone on what has to be the slowest regular work day of the year on the Michigan Tech campus, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

In my work with the Computing and Information Sciences Working Group this year I have had plenty of opportunity to ponder the two disciplines of engineering and computing, and the relationship between the two. I see both of them as components of the innate human enterprise of tool-building, that is to say, the development of technology that we use to improve the human condition. Building these tools is what we are all about at a technological university, and engineering and computing can and do play important complementary roles in our teaching and research programs.

Since engineering has been around longer than computing as both a professional activity and an academic discipline, it typically has a bigger piece of the organizational structure in universities. In the majority of universities in the United States, computing (or computer science) is one department among many in a College of Engineering or similar-named unit, right there alongside mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and all the rest. Observing what is happening with computing technology, the high-tech industry, and the employment outlook for computing professionals, I am now convinced that computing is not just another engineering sub-discipline, but rather it is its own field that should be considered complementary to engineering. The two should live side-by-side like two sides of the same technology coin. In engineering we exploit our knowledge of physics and the natural world to create things that never existed before, whereas in computing we rely on our understanding of logic, organization, and complexity. Clearly there are many areas of technology development, like in robotics and automation, where both sides play an important role and there is a kind of convergence, but nevertheless I believe the core disciplines are different. Just like the brains and brawn in our own bodies, neither one can exist without the other but yet they are not the same thing.

Having said that, I find it interesting to note how differently engineering and computing are treated at Michigan Tech, and probably at a lot of universities around the country. Engineering is a big piece of what we do, and it is concentrated almost exclusively within the College of Engineering. We have well-organized and highly regarded programs. Corporate recruiters come from far and wide to our highly successful Career Fair and related events to hire our engineering graduates. Even architecturally the campus seems to be organized around the departments in the College. All of this is very gratifying as you might imagine for our engineering departments and the chairs like me.

Computing, on the other hand, does not enjoy this same level of cohesion. Make no mistake: there is a lot of talent in computing at Michigan Tech, and nothing I say is meant to disparage my colleagues or their fine work. My comments here are really about organization and attitude. You see, at Michigan Tech everyone thinks they can do computing. We see computing programs of one sort or another in every single college and school in the university, and in almost every department. As mentioned above, this may be just a consequence of history, where engineering grew up in one century and computing in another, but I think there is something more at play here.

I would assert that, while engineering and computing are both challenging and difficult fields that when done properly require a lot of hard work and preparation over many years, the initial barrier to entry in computing is much lower than it is in engineering. Think about it. To get into engineering there is a long chain of prerequisite topics going back to high school and middle school, in calculus, differential equations, physics, chemistry, not to mention newer courses in engineering design. On the other hand, the only thing one needs to write the first lines of computer code is the ability to think in an organized way about abstract concepts of variables and operations and doing things in sequence. In my own experience as an undergraduate, it took me a couple of years to get to the point where I could design an electronic circuit, but in my freshman year I was taking courses in computer science and by the end of that first year I had written some pretty substantial programs in PL/1 that actually did real things. Let me be clear: I am not saying that the professional practice of computing is any easier than the professional practice of engineering. I am only saying that it is easier to get started.

Let me give a couple of analogies outside the world of STEM. First, in music. It takes year to learn to play an instrument, and the early going is particularly tough for instruments like violin or saxophone (not only for the student but the parents!) You just have to have faith that eventually all that hard work is going to pay off. Vocalists have no such problem getting started. Everyone can sing, right? Little kids get started in choirs in schools and churches, and it doesn’t take much to put on a performance that everyone can enjoy. Of course, fast forward twenty years and you realize that being a good singer is really, really hard, just as challenging as being an instrumentalist, and only the best can pull it off. I find it ironic that in shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice”, which I used to watch more than I do now, the singers get all the glory and the instrumentalists work like dogs, performing amazing feats of musicianship in the background with hardly any recognition. Perhaps there is more to this analogy with computing and engineering than I care to think about.

Consider the two winter sports of hockey and curling, both popular here in the Copper Country. The learning curve for hockey is long and steep, involving hours of ice time for children and the parents that have to shuttle them around. I have a number of friends here who do play hockey, including colleagues in the ECE Department, and they have been doing it a long time. I realized early on that I was not going to be able to join in on the fun, not without a major investment of time and effort that probably would not be wise for a new department chair. [When I was interviewing for this position, someone asked me if I played hockey, and when I said I did not skate very well, they said that’s OK, you can be goalie.] Shortly after I arrived in Houghton, I learned that there was a curling league in Calumet. I took up the sport, joined a team, and right away I was out on the ice one night a week in the winter. It was fun! Now if you have ever watched curling during the Winter Olympics, you can tell that it requires a lot of skill and precision, and that the experts have been working at it their entire lives. But that does not deter amateurs from going out on a weeknight and throwing the stone down the sheet. Again, it is not that curling is easier than hockey, it is just a lot easier to get started. As a coda to that story, after about 7 years of curling I realized that I was really not very good, and furthermore given time commitments to other activities I was not willing to make the investment of time and effort to get better. So I gave it up.

Back to engineering and computing: because of this substantial difference in the barrier to entry between the two fields, it is relatively easy for smart professionals in engineering, science, and other fields to introduce some aspect of computation into their work. In fact, we hear it all the time: computing is everywhere, and everyone needs to learn some level of computer literacy. I actually do believe that to a certain extent, the same way I think a well-educated person should know how to read and write and think both analytically and quantitatively. However, being computer literate does not make one a computing expert. That is the trap I think we have fallen into: we can all write computer programs, but we often do not see the difference between what we do and what the pros do. I used to think I was a pretty good programmer – one project from 20 years ago was an 8000-line MATLAB program for the automated analysis of DNA fingerprinting gels. It was complicated and drew on a lot of engineering analysis, and I was really proud of it. But I also realize now that it was nowhere close to modern standards for software engineering in terms of provable correctness, reliability, and maintainability. This is just one example involving programming, and actually today the field of computing is much bigger than computer programming. Computing visionaries today are considering all sorts of things that will be made possible by essentially unlimited and free storage and bandwidth, and that’s a whole lot more than programming – it’s an entirely new world. Many of us in engineering need to be thinking in these terms.

My concluding messages today are that first, engineering and science professionals need to be aware of the importance of computing and embrace the notion that computing its own thing, something that should be considered parallel to, and complementary to, the discipline of engineering. Second, and this is the main message: just because is it easy to get started writing computer programs, that does not mean it is easy to become a computing professional. Computing is a challenging field with far-reaching influence in today’s society, and there is a level of expertise to be reached that requires every bit as much commitment as that required in other fields. Michigan Tech would do well to take the steps necessary to make that fact obvious. Engineering and computing professionals need to have respect for one another, and that respect should be reflected in our research programs, our academic programs, and even in the organization of the university.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: That’s A Wrap

FWF-20180518
We have come to the end of another academic year at Michigan Tech. On Saturday, May 5, our spring commencement ceremony was held at the John MacInnes Ice Arena at the Student Development Complex (SDC), and the place was packed to the rafters with all the graduates and their families and well-wishers. I have been through the Michigan Tech spring commencement now nine times, and I enjoy it as much now as I did the first time. I get to sit on the platform with all the university leadership, the Board of Trustees, and my fellow department chairs, and when it is my turn I get to shake the hands of all our graduates from the ECE Department. When one has been doing this for a while, it starts to become apparent how many lives we touch at a place like Michigan Tech. This certainly must have been on the mind of our president Glenn Mroz, who after 14 years on the job is moving back to the faculty and thus this was his last commencement as master of ceremonies. President Mroz is an outstanding leader who always wears his heart on his sleeve, and we love him for it.

This year the numbers of degrees granted to students in the ECE Department, counting August 2017, December 2017, and May 2018 graduation dates, were: BSEE 83, BSCpE 41, MSEE 82, MSCpE 13, PhD EE 7, PhD CpE 2. That’s a total of 124 undergraduates and 104 graduate students. It is interesting to note that the number of graduate degrees is in the same ballpark as the number of undergraduate degrees, a major shift in the departmental culture over the past couple of decades. One of the things that caught my attention in the commencement program was that, for the spring ceremony, we actually had more MSEE graduates (63) than BSEE graduates (57). I have to imagine that is a first for us, and given current enrollment trends we may not see that again for a long time. Of course, because of the difference in the number of student credit hours required for BS vs. MS degrees, our undergraduate enrollment is still much larger than our graduate enrollment. The number of undergraduate degrees is typically around 20% of our undergraduate enrollment, whereas the number of graduate degrees is closer to 50% of our graduate enrollment.

Commencement not only marks the end of the academic year, but also the beginning of summer. The campus empties out and suddenly everything is quiet, for a while at least. The weather has been sunny and beautiful this May, in stark contrast to all the snow we got in April. Lawns have turned green overnight, it seems, and within a week all the trees will be green too. It’s like we go straight from winter to summer.

Summer didn’t really start for me until this past Monday, when I finally wrapped up the report from the Computer and Information Sciences Working Group and turned it over to Provost Jackie Huntoon. We had a number of recommendations, which is what we were asked for, and in broad terms I can report that the Working Group believes Michigan Tech needs to make some bold moves to enhance its visibility and impact in computing. Beyond that I do not want to go into all the details publicly, as the new university leadership should first have the opportunity to go over the report, give us some feedback, and start the process of deciding where the university should go next. I’ll have a few more opinions to share on computing and engineering in the next few weeks, but for now, I am just happy to have that weight lifted off my shoulders.

One of the things we do in the ECE Department during these lulls is take a moment to express our thanks to our highly capable and dedicated staff. Thursday May 17 was an unofficial “staff appreciation day” when several faculty members and I took the staff out to lunch and we enjoyed some time together. The way this comes about every year is that, on the last Wednesday in April, when we are all running around like headless chickens with end-of-year activities, I suddenly remember that it is Administrative Professionals Day. When that happens I ask if we can just put the celebration off until May, and of course everyone says yes. We are truly blessed in the ECE Department to have clerical, advising, and technical staff that do an amazing job individually and also work together really well as a team. It certainly makes my job a lot easier and I am grateful for their service to Michigan Tech and the ECE Department.

So now, on to the summer. The big thing on my to-do list is to prepare for the roll-out of our new online MSEE program focused on signal processing and communications, due to start in September (see FWF 2/23/2018). While Prof. Tim Schulz is working on a new course in Mathematical and Computational Methods in Engineering, I have volunteered to prepare and teach an online version of our course in Digital Signal Processing. Tim and I are both finding that building an online course to contemporary standards is a lot of work, as it requires us to think about delivering technical content in a whole new way. I am hoping one can teach an old dog new tricks, but I am optimistic, even confident. This is a great summer project and I am looking forward to it – along with everything else that one can find to do in the Copper Country.

Have a great summer everyone!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Postcard from Yuma

Prometheus Borealis 20180503

Earlier this week I had the chance to join Professor Jeremy Bos and the students from Michigan Tech’s team Prometheus Borealis as they participated in the Year 1 competitive events in the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge at the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona.

I wrote about the AutoDrive Challenge when it was first announced that Michigan Tech would be one of the participants, a little over a year ago. The competition is jointly sponsored by General Motors (GM) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The concept is to get teams of college students, graduate and undergraduate, to convert a Chevy Bolt into an autonomous vehicle over the three years of the competition, with increasing levels of autonomy and more difficult challenges in each successive year. Unlike most of the SAE collegiate competitions, this competition has little to do with the automotive powertrain; it is focused more on the electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science skills needed to implement the sensors, signal processing, and artificial intelligence to make the car drive itself. To be sure, there are mechanical engineers and other disciplines such as social science represented on the teams as well. It is truly a collaborative effort, consistent with what all our external advisors tell us is the norm in industry today.

There are teams from seven other North American universities in the competition; they are: Michigan State University, Kettering University, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina A&T State University.

At Michigan Tech the team is hosted in the Robotic Systems Enterprise, one of several multidisciplinary student organizations that serve both an academic and a social function (for more about the Enterprise program see https://www.mtu.edu/enterprise/). The faculty advisors are Prof. Jeremy Bos from the ECE Department and Prof. Darrell Robinette from the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. At last count there were something like 50 students in RSE and the majority of those, but not all, are on the AutoDrive team.

Retrofitting an automobile to make it autonomous is quite an ambitious task. There are sensors mounted all over the vehicle, including a video camera, one or more LIDARS up on the roof, and multiple radar units positioned around the vehicle at bumper level. The video camera typically sees the same scene a human drive would see. LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging; essentially these use lasers to measure the distance to anything and everything in the field of view. The radars do the same thing, at radio frequencies; they have longer range and can see through conditions like rain, fog, and snow. Some vehicles use ultrasonic sensors as well. All the sensor outputs are digitized and the data are fed into a powerful computer mounted in the trunk. Multiple computer algorithms process all this data and provide electronic controls for the acceleration, steering, and brakes. Nothing to it, right?

For most of this year, the students have been busy with the concept design for the vehicle – how to mount all the sensors and the computers, and designing the overall software architecture for the computer algorithms. As one might imagine, safety plays a critical role in the design of the algorithms. I wish I could say more about the details of the design, but I have not been close enough to the project to comment with authority (I should let the students write one these columns!) Bottom line, the team has a design and has implemented that design with the sensors (except the radars) and computers installed on the vehicle. It’s actually ready to roll, for certain rudimentary autonomous functionality – an impressive accomplishment for a single year.

So on to Yuma for the competition this week. Yuma, Arizona, is a little town, actually somewhat larger than I expected, in the desert Southwest near where California, Arizona, and Mexico come together. 30 miles outside Yuma, about as remote as one can possibly get, is the Yuma Proving Grounds, a gigantic U.S. Army facility of over 1000 square miles which has on it a large vehicle testing facility run by GM. Although it is not exactly convenient for any of the teams in the competition, 3 hours drive from Phoenix, it has everything that is needed for this competition and is fully operational and available this time of year.

I was only able to join the group on Tuesday, and my only role was to provide moral support and get in the way. I had nothing to offer of a technical nature – although maybe that will change next year when they start to use the radars. On Tuesday, the students made an hour-long presentation on their technical concept design, and underwent a technical and safety inspection of the vehicle. There was also a demonstration of a side project on navigation and mapping, which will be integrated into the vehicle in Years 2 and 3, and a presentation on the social responsibility aspects of autonomous vehicles. I was greatly impressed by everything I saw.

Unfortunately, because of my need to get back home for events leading up to commencement, I was unable to stay in Yuma for the actual autonomous driving events, which happen Wednesday through Friday. Since those events are ongoing as of this writing, I will have to wait until next Friday to report on the overall results of the competition. Preliminary indications I am hearing is that the team is doing extremely well.

I am certain my counterparts at the other university will say the same thing about their teams, but I could not be prouder of this group of Huskies and everything they have accomplished this year. I was even more pleased to see how happy Prof. Bos was with the student performance, since leading this group has been a challenging task and a lot more work than he signed up for. If we can do well, pushing the technology forward, educating the next generation of automotive engineers, and making Michigan Tech look good in the process, it will all be worth it.

Stay tuned for the overall results of the Year 1 competition next week. Also, stay tuned for comments on commencement which is scheduled for Saturday. No doubt it will be memorable, being the last commencement exercises with President Glenn Mroz at the helm.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: News From Week 13, 2018 Edition

design-expo-bookToday is the last regular day of classes at Michigan Tech for the 2017-2018 academic year. Next week is Finals Week, which then leads into Commencement on Saturday, May 5. How time flies when you are having fun!

This is always a busy time of year for me, although having been in this job for 10 years now I have come to expect it and plan for it. What was a little harder to plan for this year was the added stress of wrapping up the work of the Computing and Information Sciences Working Group, and the launch of our new online MS program in partnership with Keypath Education. Just to top it off I had a mild case of the flu which had me going from one meeting to the next like the walking dead. I’m not complaining though – what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and I am grateful and energized by having meaningful work to do.

Michigan Tech students, especially graduating seniors, celebrate the last day of classes with a tradition we call the Senior Walk, a pub crawl that makes its way from Hancock to Houghton in the late afternoon and evening. I am on a bit of a Senior Walk myself, on my way to California with my wife to spend time with good friends in the wine country near Healdsburg. It’s a short trip, and I will follow that up by heading to Yuma, Arizona, to offer a little moral support to our students in the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge as they put their autonomous vehicle through the Year 1 Competition. I will make it back just in time for some year-end meetings, and of course commencement.

Last week is what we call Week 13 in the academic calendar, the culmination of all our Senior Design and Enterprise projects. We followed our usual schedule, with the student presentations all morning on Thursday, the Design Expo on Thursday afternoon, and the ECE Senior Banquet in the evening. The ECE External Advisory Committee was in town, serving as judges for the projects and presentations. The entire ECE faculty gets in the act too; I ask everyone to sit in on at least two presentations and provide written feedback.

At the Senior Banquet we give out a number of awards to our top students, our top projects, and one special faculty member.

Following a tradition we started last year, we recognized all the student volunteers who help with Fall Open House, Spring Preview Day, departmental tours for prospective high school students, calling campaigns, and similar activities. These students act as ambassadors for Michigan Tech and the ECE Department. They believe in what we are trying to do here with our educational programs, and do an outstanding job of communicating that enthusiasm to others. We are deeply grateful to them for all they do.

L-R: Sarah Wade, Lanna Pirkola, Kyle Ludwig, Stephen Grulke, Derek Gheller, Derek Burrell, Christine Cauley; Missing from photo: Shaun Flynn, Meghan Friske, Mitchell Paris, Max Pletcher, DeShawn Presley, Jake Soter, Jack Swanberg
L-R: Sarah Wade, Lanna Pirkola, Kyle Ludwig, Stephen Grulke, Derek Gheller, Derek Burrell, Christine Cauley; Missing from photo: Shaun Flynn, Meghan Friske, Mitchell Paris, Max Pletcher, DeShawn Presley, Jake Soter, Jack Swanberg

Each year we give three awards to top undergraduate students in the ECE Department. The first is the ECE Departmental Scholar Award. It is given to a student who will have senior status next academic year, and represents the best in student scholarship in the department. The Departmental Scholar is our nomination for the Provost’s Award for Scholarship, a university-wide award that is announced the following Friday. The winner of ECE Departmental Scholar for 2018 is Elizabeth (Liz) Adams. Liz is an electrical engineering major with a departmental GPA of 3.92. She participates in the LEAP program, where she served as a near-peer mentor for students in Engineering Fundamentals 1101, answering students questions and teaching a one-hour lesson each week. Other activities at Michigan Tech include being a member of the Society of Women Engineers, Vice-President of the Fencing Club, and a project manager for Concrete Canoe. Faculty members Mike Roggemann and Kit Cischke both had high praise for Liz’ academic ability and intellectual curiosity.

ECE 2018 Departmental Scholar: Elizabeth (Liz) Adams
ECE 2018 Departmental Scholar: Elizabeth (Liz) Adams

Our second student award is the ECE Woman of Promise. The goal of this program, which is connected to the Presidential Council of Alumnae, is to recognize women at Michigan Tech who go “above and beyond” what is expected of them in terms of being a well-rounded student – those who have demonstrated academic achievement, campus and community leadership, good citizenship, and creativity. This year’s ECE Woman of Promise is Christine Cauley. Christine is an electrical engineering major with a GPA of 3.46. She was nominated by ECE academic advisor Judy Donahue, who writes “Christine is a cheerful ambassador of the ECE Department as she has helped with the Fall Open House department tour. She is a member of the Wireless Communications Enterprise, and is a Project Leader for her team, which worked on a bird-window collision sensor. She is a member of the Blue Key National Honor Society and Co-Chair for the Queens Committee. Christine was a guest speaker for the Michigan Tech’s Fall Open House event. She goes above and beyond, demonstrating campus and community leadership while successfully pursuing the BSEE, and is deserving of the award.”

ECE 2018 Woman of Promise, Martha Sloan Scholarship recipient: Christine Cauley
ECE 2018 Woman of Promise, Martha Sloan Scholarship recipient: Christine Cauley

The third and final student award in the ECE Department is the Carl S. Schjonberg Award for Outstanding Undergraduate in the ECE Department. This award was established to honor a long-time faculty member in the ECE Department and is given to our top student, usually a graduating senior. The Schjonberg Award recipient for this year is Lanna Pirkola. Lanna is a 3rd-year senior with a departmental GPA of 4.0. She plans to graduate in December 2018, in only three and a half years. She has served on the departmental Undergraduate Advisory Board, and is a member of Eta Kappa Nu. She is a recipient of the Michigan Tech Presidential Scholarship of Distinction, and the Air Force Recruiting Service Mathematics and Science Award. She is an absolutely top-rate student who works very very hard and will make us proud when she enters the workforce. Congratulations Lanna!

Carl S. Schjonberg Award: Lanna Pirkola
Carl S. Schjonberg Award: Lanna Pirkola

The ECE External Advisory Committee awards the Larry Kennedy Industry Innovation Award to the top ECE student project, based on the project reports and presentations from earlier in the day. This year the top prize went to the project titled “Medical Device Tool One-Way Communication Emulator” sponsored by Stryker Medical. This is the second year in a row that a Stryker project has taken the top prize, so they certainly must be doing something right to inspire the students and give them something meaty to work on. Congratulations to advisor Trever Hassell and all the students on a job well done.

L-R: advisor Trever Hassell, Kyle Ludwig, Benjamin Schaedig, Morgan English, Justin Evankovich, Charles Lubitz
L-R: advisor Trever Hassell, Kyle Ludwig, Benjamin Schaedig, Morgan English, Justin Evankovich, Charles Lubitz

Although not part of the Senior Banquet festivities on that Thursday evening, this is a good place to mention how the ECE Department fared in the Michigan Tech Design Expo, which is a university-wide event held on Thursday afternoon in the MUB, where students set up posters describing their projects and explain their work to judges and other attendees. For the first time in as long as I can remember, an ECE Department project won the best Senior Design project! The project was “Performance and Protection Characterization of Plug and Play Solar Systems”, sponsored by Consumers Energy. The faculty advisor was Prof. Sumit Paudyal, and the student team was Lauren Clark, Erik Romanski, Gabe Simmering, and Jason Wesley. I couldn’t be more pleased with this result. The ECE project titled “Human Machine Interface (HMI) Anunciator Replacement” took Honorable Mention in the Senior Design Projects, and our Wireless Communication Enterprise, advised by Kit Cischke, took Third Place in the Enterprise category.

The final award for the Senior Banquet is the announcement by the students in Eta Kappa Nu of their choice for Professor of the Year. I am delighted to report that this year the students selected Prof. Sumit Paudyal. Sumit has made a name for himself in the past six years as an outstanding instructor, although that reputation is based primarily on his teaching in graduate courses in the power and energy program. With only a little exposure to our undergraduates through a senior-level power systems course, and his acting as advisor for the project that took the top prize in Design Expo, our undergraduates have immediately recognized what an enormous asset Prof. Paudyal is for the department. In addition to this award, this year Sumit won an NSF CAREER award and is being promoted to the rank of Associate Professor, with tenure. It’s an academic trifecta! On top of all that, Sumit and his wife Saru Bhattarai had their first baby this year! Sometimes the universe just lines everything up in the same direction at the same time. I am delighted for all the good things that are coming Sumit’s way, and proud to call him a member of the Michigan Tech ECE Department.

HKN representative Sandra Cvetanovic presents the Professor of the Year Award to Sumit Paudyal
HKN representative Sandra Cvetanovic presents the Professor of the Year Award to Sumit Paudyal

Next week (probably) – news from Arizona. To all our students – good luck with finals!

– Dan

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


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


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