Category: Fridays with Fuhrmann

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Happy New Year!

fwf20161230FWF is taking a break this week. The university has, for all intents and purposes, been shut down for the entire week, and yours truly has been spending holiday time with family and enjoying the many winter recreational opportunities this area affords. We will pick up again in January. Goodbye to 2016, and a very happy and productive 2017 to all!

– Dan

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Cheers!!

I wish I could say I wrote the poem below, but alas, all I did was look it up on the Internet. I don’t know what is more remarkable – that someone can be so creative that they can come up with stuff like this, or that we have created a world in which at 11pm the night before a column is due, one can search on “electrical engineering night before Christmas” and something like this instantly appears. Either way, I wish all the readers of this blog a joyous holiday season and the happiest of new years. Enjoy! – Dan

Twas the night before Christmas and all through production,
We were measuring current and checking induction,
Capacitors mounted, diodes seated with care,
In the hope that the circuit soon would be there.

All ICs positioned, each pin seated right,
Our soldering irons were turned off for the night,
Transistors were stowed, not a circuit was shorted,
And resistors all packed, by ohms they were sorted.

But still one more task lay ahead, just for me –
Another few hours on my new PCB,
Just for good measure I gave it a poke,
And the 15 volt rail went up in grey smoke.

Electrolytic capacitors popped and went bang,
Resistors went meltdown, connectors snapped with a twang,
The PSU – open circuit, the current killed diodes,
So I snatched up the solder and reached for my probes.

I pulled out my meter, I prodded and twiddled,
First blew out the ground rail, then re-routed and fiddled,
An inductor coil here and there a resistor,
Transplanted an IC, cross-connected transistor,

A diode reversed and an upgraded cap,
A little more solder to bridge a small gap –
My tolerances tiered to the umpteenth degree,
But still it lay lifeless, that damn PCB!

Then out in the main lab I heard such a clatter,
I tore off my wrist strap to find what was the matter –
In the anti-stat bay a fine sled had appeared,
With reindeer and earth-strap and a man with white beard.

His fine stamping reindeer were led, I did see,
By one whose bright nose was a red LED;
Trimming their harness were components and bits,
Bright coded resistors and surface-mount chips.

The white-bearded man tipped open a sack,
And like jewels some components trickled out of his pack,
With a nod and a wink he heated my iron,
And laid down a fresh circuit of finest gold wire.

Some ICs he placed with great care on the board,
Along with transformers from his own gleaming hoard,
The board was soon finished, held up for inspection,
All test points in place, all power rails checked on.

Then he gathered his meter, his twiddlers and tools,
Scooped up the components which lay like bright jewels,
Gave me a handful and said with a wink,
“I’ve twiddled the RF, please see what you think.”

His sled with its diodes all flashing and bright,
Clattered out of the anti-stat into the night,
Just ‘fore he vanished he reached over his shoulder,
Threw me a new wrist-strap and a big reel of solder.

“On Henry! On Farad! On Voltage and Ohm!
On Ampere, Transformer, reverse-fitted Diode!
We’ve surface-mount circuits and more things electronic!”
As he took to the skies and he went supersonic.

But I heard him exclaim as he vanished from sight,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all no short-circuits!!
– author unknown

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Pomp and Circumstance and Snow

FWF_image_20161216It’s a great day to be a Husky!

Today is the last day of final exams for the Fall 2016 semester; tomorrow we will hold our fall commencement exercises in the Student Development Complex. At Michigan Tech we hold commencement twice a year, once in December and once at the end of the spring semester. It’s convenient for the students graduating in December, about one third of the students graduating each year. Splitting into two ceremonies makes it possible for us to read the names of every graduate getting a diploma as they cross the stage, without being there all day. It’s hard not to feel a little emotional during these rituals, as we see the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of the students and the faculty. It’s a big moment for all the parents in attendance, to be sure, but as surrogate parents for these young men and women over the past 4-5 years it’s a big moment for us too.

I always enjoy talking to the graduates as we stand in line waiting to enter the gym. I typically ask the same two questions: what was your favorite course or instructor, and what are you doing after graduation? On the first question, I have come to anticipate the answer, knowing that we have a handful of instructors in the ECE Department that consistently go above and beyond in carrying out their teaching responsibilities. Every once in a while I am very pleasantly surprised to hear a name I have not heard before, to learn that someone is growing as a teacher and is reaching out to students in new and different ways. The second question is always fun, as I know that all of our ECE graduates who have been seeking jobs will have one. Michigan Tech performs very well in college rankings that emphasize “return on investment.” That is a reflection of everything we do here, both in our rigorous academic programs and through all the support activity from Career Services and Student Affairs. One of the stories creating some buzz around the department this year is that one of our BS graduates received and accepted a job offer with a six-figure salary – not in California, either, but right here in Michigan! I know it’s not all about the money, but I do believe that the value of a Michigan Tech education, both to the students and to prospective employers, is something to be proud of.

All of this hoopla is taking place against a backdrop of a sudden change in the weather. Some readers may recall my writing (OK, whining) in recent columns about the late and warm fall we have had this year. Well, no more. With a shift in the weather patterns, we are getting cold arctic air blowing from the northwest across Lake Superior and churning up the lake effect snow machine, big time. According the Keweenaw Research Center out by the airport, the one measurement I trust, we have had 41 inches of snow in December as of noon Wednesday. Much of this past week we were under a blizzard warning, and in a lapse of good judgment I happened to be out on one of our local highways Tuesday morning in the worst white-out conditions I have experienced since moving to Houghton. (I made it home safe and sound, thank you very much.) The cross-country ski trails opened up quickly and are good to go. To my astonishment, I learned that Mont Ripley, Michigan Tech’s own ski hill right here in town, opens today. Guess where I’m going to be Saturday right after commencement!

– Dan

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

Fridays with Fuhrmann: On The Hill

FWF_image_20161209This week I had the opportunity to join Wayne Pennington, our Dean of the College of Engineering, and Brent Burns, the Director of Federal and Industry Relations, on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C. The purpose was to meet some of our congressional delegations and to host an alumni event for Huskies in the DC area. I do not have a lot of experience in government relations as it relates to my role as department chair, but I should probably be doing more of that and so the trip was valuable and educational for me.

I came away with a number of different impressions. First, the city of Washington itself seems alive and well. The iconic landmarks themselves – the Capitol building, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, all the museums, and much more – are really quite beautiful, and it is hard to be down on the mall without feeling a strong sense of national pride. Despite all the bickering and acrimony we have seen this year, the work of government is really very important and I am glad that our Nation’s capital stands as a beacon for the rest of the world, a stately setting for democracy in action. Beyond the mall the city seems to be thriving economically and culturally, which is a positive change over the years that I have visited. It is an energizing place just to walk around.

The political mood of the people I met was not as polarized as I expected. I think everyone, no matter their political persuasion, agrees that there are going to be some changes with the incoming administration, but most have no idea what to expect. If there is one thing we can probably all agree on, it is that Donald Trump is unpredictable. So, there is a lot of curiosity not necessarily anxiety. It’s more like they are waiting for the show to start and expecting to be entertained. Of course, everyone we were talking to is intelligent, well-educated, and ambitious, so they are likely to land on their feet no matter what happens. I suspect there is a lot more anxiety out on the margins of society.

I was struck by how youthful everyone was, except for the senators and representatives themselves. Let’s face it, Washington in a young person’s town. They find positions in the various administrations as staffers and aides, work like crazy 24/7 until they burn out, and then move on. I guess that’s not a bad thing. As I said above, the work of government is important, and there is value in having smart, energetic young people doing all the day-to-day work you never hear about. It did make me feel old though.

We wrapped up Wednesday evening by attending an all-Michigan holiday party in a beautifully decorated space in one of the congressional office buildings. It was attended by senators, representatives, lots of the aforementioned young staffers, Michigan businesses with offices in D.C., and university representatives including us. There was plenty of opportunity for networking, and an abundance of wonderful food and drink. On the dessert table they had, among many other goodies, some cute little Michigan cookies – see adjacent photo.FWF_image_20161209_2 Question: what’s wrong with this picture?

– Dan

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

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

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

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

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