Category: Fridays with Fuhrmann

Fridays with Fuhrmann: ECE in the middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Another beautiful thing about being here

FWF_image_20161014Last night I saw the northern lights for the first time. Having lived in the Upper Peninsula for over eight years now, one would think that I would have had many opportunities, but no such luck until now. My wife and I got the news that there was a high probability of activity, so we drove up to Eagle River to have dinner at a nice restaurant on the shore of Lake Superior, facing northwest. After dinner, when it was dark, we went out to have a look and there they were big as life. It was a clear night, with a nearly full and very bright moon that unfortunately washed the contrast out quite a bit. Still, it was a thrill to see something I had always heard about but had never witnessed first-hand.

There is not much point to that story, other than it reminds me (yet again) of the things that are unusual and special about Michigan Tech and this part of the country.

Right now we are at the halfway point in the Fall 2016 semester – the end of Week 7. It seems that things have quieted down a bit, although a lot of people are excited about the home opener for the hockey team tonight at the MacInnes Ice Arena. For me, the first half of the fall semester is always very hectic, with advisory boards and the Career Fair and most recently all the performance evaluations leading up to mid-year raise recommendations for the faculty and staff. This week, I have had a chance to slow down and enjoy the change of seasons.

Fall is always a beautiful time of year in the Keweenaw. Because of all the warm weather we have had in September, fall is very late this year, I would say maybe as much as two weeks. There is a lot of color in the trees but they have not peaked yet; we need a good freeze to really get the colors to pop, and that hasn’t happened yet. The weather is great but the colors may be a bit on the bland side this year.

There’s an old joke around here that there are two seasons in the U.P. – “winter’s here” and “winter’s coming.” Once the leaves are off the trees in a couple of weeks, it really will be “winter’s coming,” a sort of nondescript time when things are gray but the snow hasn’t showed up yet. I find it a good time to take stock, clear off the to-do list (to the extent that is possible), and to start making preparations for the inevitable snow. Some people say we could get as much as 300 inches this year. I don’t doubt that that is possible, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

The reader can tell that, even though I am in the office, my mind is not in the office. That is one disadvantage of having a big picture window with a view of the fall colors! Next week I will close the blinds and get back to writing about electrical and computer engineering.

Have a great weekend everyone!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Fall Career Fair 2016 – ECE Students In Demand

FWF_image_20160930This past Tuesday Michigan Tech held its fall Career Fair, always a big event in the life of the university. Some 340 companies and organizations filled up the Student Development Complex, our recreational and athletic facility up the hill from the main part of campus. From 12 noon to 5 pm students lined up to talk to companies about opportunities for full-time positions, co-ops, and internships. The rain we had all day did not dampen anyone’s spirits, although it did encourage more students to drive, making parking around the SDC a complete madhouse. On Wednesday recruiters filled every available conference and meeting room on campus for follow-up one-on-one interviews. I am always energized to see the level of interest shown by recruiters toward our engineering students – it gives me the confidence that we must be doing something right.

As usual, the demand for electrical engineering and computer engineering students was very high. As of this writing I do not have the hard numbers on how many companies were seeking ECE graduates – those numbers are harder to track down than they were last year – but from walking the floor and talking to recruiters the situation does not appear to have changed from recent years. Something that was new, and good to see, was that recruiters seemed happier with the number and the quality of the ECE students they had a chance to talk to. Last year we had so many companies at Career Fair – 370, an all-time Michigan Tech record – that unfortunately some of those companies went home empty-handed and disappointed. On the one hand, it is very gratifying to see large numbers of companies beating down our doors for graduates, but on the other hand it may be healthier to have a certain equilibrium, where we have just enough demand to make our students optimistic about their careers but not complacent. A little anxiety is a good thing, to help our students step up their game in resume preparation and interview skills. I heard a lot of good things this year about the interactions on the Career Fair floor and in the follow-up interviews. As you might imagine I am proud of our students and happy for them as they prepare to enter the next chapter in their lives.

Also this week, on Thursday and Friday, the ECE Department is hosting the fall meeting of our External Advisory Committee, a group of 15 or so industry representatives who help us in our efforts at continuous improvement in everything we do. That meeting is still going on, so I won’t give a full report here.

It’s been a pretty busy week so by the time it is all over I am looking forward to taking the weekend off and spending some time with good friends at a cabin out on Lake Superior. The predicted weather is good, and who knows, we may even see some northern lights. Have a good one everybody!

Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann, a rite of passage

Breaking Home Ties, Normal Rockwell
Breaking Home Ties, Norman Rockwell

Greetings from the road! I am waking up this morning in the bustling metropolis of Miles City, Montana, conveniently located on I-94 about 700 miles east of Minneapolis, where I started yesterday morning, and 700 west of Spokane, where I will end up tonight. My wife and I are taking our youngest daughter off to college in Bellingham, Washington, on a long cross-country trip across the northern United States.

The personal story itself is not particularly noteworthy, but it does give me an opportunity to reflect on this important ritual in so many American lives, where Michigan Tech is front and center: leaving home and going to college. Every fall we and hundreds of other colleges see this writ large. In fact, this year in the ECE Department we are experiencing an 8% increase in undergraduate enrollment – the largest in the College of Engineering – as we welcome about 190 new first-year students to campus. It is good to have a chance to see this from the other side. It helps me to understand what an important responsibility we have in the life journey of these remarkable young adults we call our students.

Most of the more experienced faculty members in the ECE Department have been through this. We get what it means to give a gentle push and let go, as our children take their first steps as independent adults living away from home. This may explain, in part, why the older faculty tend to end up teaching the earlier courses in our curriculum. Pedagogy is very important to us at Michigan Tech, and it becomes more important as one goes earlier in the curriculum. The typical instructional career path in this and many departments starts with new faculty members teaching graduate courses, where the material is more important than the pedagogy, and as they gain experience teaching they work their way down the curriculum where the opposite is true. As a crusty old veteran I get a lot of satisfaction teaching a course in engineering mathematics for freshmen and sophomores.

Truth be told, we don’t have all that much contact with first-year students, my course being one exception. At Michigan Tech the first-year curriculum is the responsibility of a separate department called Engineering Fundamentals, and they do a fantastic job. All of the “traditional” departments in the College of Engineering are grateful and indebted to EF for their hard work and dedication.

Parents of course play a critical role in the hand-off. The relationship between the university and parents is somewhat curious. It would appear that our basic message to parents is: “Thank you for entrusting your children to our care and paying their tuition. Now go away.” Most of us, especially those of us with college-age children of our own, are actually perfectly happy to talk with parents and extol the virtues and benefits of a Michigan Tech education. At the same time, most of our parents understand the importance of backing away and letting their children take responsibility for their own lives. A lot of our parents are Michigan Tech alumni and can tell stories of the “good old days” when the disconnect was far more abrupt than it is today. Every so often I have to communicate with the so-called “helicopter parent”, but it is not an especially big issue and I don’t mind listening to their concerns. On rare occasions we have to invoke FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prevents parents from access to everything they might want to know about the college life of their children. I imagine this comes up more often for our academic advisors, and in the Office of the Dean of Students, than it does for me.

A lot of American students today, for one reason or another, choose to attend schools close to home or even live at home. This runs counter to my own experience so it is hard for me to relate. Back in 1975 I knew I wanted to be at least a day’s drive away and so ended up choosing a school 400 miles away from Mom and Dad. All of my own children have ended up at schools about 2000 miles from home or more (not sure what that says…I’ll take that as a positive reflection of their desire for independence…) At Michigan Tech, by virtue of our location, almost all of our students travel quite a distance to Houghton. The population centers in downstate Michigan, home to the majority of Huskies, are some 500-600 miles away. I believe this has a big influence on the nature of our student body and the sense of community built in our little outpost in the Upper Peninsula.

The sun is rising on a beautiful day here in Montana. I am looking forward to a couple more days with my wife and daughter before I have to do the same thing that all of our other Michigan Tech parents do: say goodbye. Time to hit the road!

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann, Remembering 9/11

patriot-day-september-11th-patriot-day-september-11th-2014-iKkWK2-clipartThis weekend we observe the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, the day the United States was attacked by an international terrorist organization, both towers of the World Trade Center came down, the Pentagon was badly damaged, a 4th plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania, and thousands of Americans lost their lives in horrible fashion. It was a very dark day in our history, and I am certain that all of us who were around at the time can remember where they were and what they were doing. For me, I was driving my older son to school and was listening to the car radio as events unfolded. I will never forget a short while later when my younger son announced with (perhaps unintentional) sardonic wit, “Well, now I’ve got something for Current Events!” Classes were canceled at Washington University, and everyone sat around watching the follow-up afternoon news on big-screen televisions. To this day I think of September 10, 2001, a day of minor personal importance, as the last normal day in America.

In the years that followed people found various ways to the remember what had happened, something that I am certain will happen this year too. One of my favorites came from Norman Katz, a faculty member in the Department of Systems Science and Engineering at Washington University, who in his classes in engineering mathematics would read aloud this little-known 4th verse from “America the Beautiful”:

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Things have never been the same since 9/11. Like it or not, we have given up liberties in the interest of increased security, the most obvious example for travelers being the hassles we have to go through in airports today. We are anxious about all manner of threats to our national security and to our personal security. Perhaps most insidious are threats to the well-being of people and organizations in the invisible world of cyberspace.

Our response to these 21st century threats must be both cautious and optimistic. We cannot be naive: we have to do what is prudent to protect ourselves and those that we love, along with our businesses, our schools, and our government. At the same time, we cannot live our lives in a climate of fear, otherwise the terrorists have won. I believe it is our duty as Americans to take all the right precautions – and our duty as engineers to help develop new technologies that enhance our security without being too intrusive – but in the end it is also our duty to live life with the openness and optimism that our way of life, defined and protected by the U.S. Constitution, affords us.

Life is an amazing adventure. 9/11 was a serious, tragic chapter in that story, but we cannot let it define who we are or what we stand for. I remain, as ever, grateful for the many joys and opportunities that have come my way. My sincere hope is that the majority of you feel the same way.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann – Returns

FWF_image_20160902Greetings and Happy September to all my friends following the ECE Department at Michigan Tech.

Here we go again – the beginning of a new academic year, a time I have always found to be energizing and exciting. While many of us, myself included, are sad to see the summer slip away (especially when we think about all the things we thought we were going to get done, and didn’t) September always brings with it the promise a new beginning. I have always thought that my teaching colleagues seemed quite a bit younger relative to other people at the same age, outside the academic world. It must have something to do with being around so many young people and the annual recharging our batteries that happens this time of year.

I know of no other line of work, except maybe in the church, where the rhythm is so closely tied to the annual trip of the earth around the sun as it is in academics. We kick things off in August or September, have breaks for Thanksgiving and Christmas, start up again in January, take another to break sometime at the beginning of spring, then head down the home stretch to commencement in May. This is our liturgical calendar. As I head toward my 59th birthday next week, I look back and realize that, going all the way back to kindergarten, I have only had one year in my life – 1979 – when September did not mean the beginning of a new school year, either as a student or an educator. That one year came during a period between college and graduate school when I was working as young engineer at Telex Computer Products in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I am certain that it would feel odd not to be starting yet another school year in the fall.

Things are hopping here at Michigan Tech, and in the ECE Department. The latest figures show that we have 632 enrolled undergraduates, and about 250 graduate students. That’s a big jump in our undergraduate enrollment, and an 10-year high in total enrollment. I have to believe that this is due in part to the current demand for electrical and computer engineers, in terms of both job openings and starting salaries. Of course, we have to remember that these things can be cyclical, but right now is a pretty good time to be going into the field. I have written about this several times before, but it bears repeating: it is a lot of fun educating students to go into a field that so many employers actually care about. At Michigan Tech we like to think that we are doing things the right way to help prepare students to enter that workforce. We also recognize that there all sorts of good non-academic reasons that students like coming to Michigan Tech, 200 inches of snow notwithstanding – it’s a complete package.

Speaking of snow, the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a heavier than normal year, and I hear people throwing around the figure of 300 inches. Some old-timers recall the winter of 1978-79, which was that kind of year, with a combination of delight and dread. If it happens, you will read about it in this column.

For those who need a little extra time to ease into the academic year gently, we always have the Labor Day weekend to get a school day off and mark the end of the summer. Enjoy it everyone!

– Dan

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


Alumni Reunion and ECE Academy, Class of 2016

Charles Rogers '78 (left) and Richard Ford '77, ECE Academy, Class of 2016. Missing from photo is Shankar Mukherjee '86.
Charles Rogers ’78 (left) and Richard Ford ’77, ECE Academy, Class of 2016. Missing from photo is Shankar Mukherjee ’86.
Welcome to a special Monday edition of Fridays with Fuhrmann!

Last week was the week of alumni reunions at Michigan Tech. In the ECE Department we began Wednesday evening with our biennial induction ceremony for the ECE Academy, which is our “hall of fame” for ECE alumni who have distinguished themselves in their careers, whether through technical contributions, business and entrepreneurship, or professional service. We inducted three new members into the Academy this year. Shankar Mukherjee, MS ’86, is an entrepreneur who lives in Cupertino, California, and is currently very busy with his latest venture, Dhaani Systems. In fact, Shankar is so busy that he had to cancel his trip to Houghton at the last minute and attend to an emergency situation with potential buyers in India! Fortunately, we were able to Skype him in (at 5:30am his time) and the ceremony moved forward smoothly. Rich Ford, BS ’77, is a power engineer who spent his entire career with Consumers Power, now Consumers Energy, in downstate Michigan. Rich started out as an engineer and moved his way up through the ranks, finishing his career with stints at VP of Energy Delivery, VP of Generation Operations, and VP of Transmission. Charles Rogers, BS ’78, also spent his career with Consumers Energy. (They must take good care of their employees.) Charles’ many contributions were more in the areas of standards and compliance, and he spent a fair amount of time in service activity on task forces and committees on standards for system protection and maintenance. We are of course very proud of our new Academy members and will be very happy to see their smiling faces on the wall in the entryway to the EERC.

Thursday was a day with lots of university-wide activities for returning Huskies. This normally includes a pasty picnic in the late afternoon, on the grounds between the EERC and the ChemSci Building. For the first time in my memory the picnic was moved indoors based on the prediction of violent thunderstorms with almost 100% certainty, but in a cruel twist of fate, 4:00 p.m. rolled around and there was not a cloud in the sky. It’s been a while since I have seen a weather prediction that wrong. The irony is that, for the most part, this summer has been fabulously beautiful in the Copper Country. We all enjoyed our picnic in the MUB anyway. I got to wander around, eat too much (who eats a big meal at 4pm?) and make lots of new friends.

Friday afternoon we had an open house in the ECE Department for alumni interested in our educational and research activities. After some opening socializing in our 5th floor lounge, we took the group on a tour of our teaching labs and research facilities in the EERC, with the tour led by ECE undergraduate academic advisor Judy Donahue (thank you Judy!). I like to think that everyone came away with a good impression of what we are trying to do here.

Why do we go to all this effort? Obviously, like a lot of universities, we want to keep our alumni connected with Michigan Tech, socially and emotionally. It makes us all feel part of a larger community, a community with a sense of history and mission. We depend on our alumni in a lot of ways, not only for the generous charitable contributions that support our students and help us to grow our programs, but for the generous gift of their time and valuable advice. Showing off what we do for people who have been out in the world, for 20, 30, even 50 years or more, really helps us to focus our efforts. We are quick to remind our alumni that they carry the Husky brand with them wherever they go, so that our continued success is their success as well, just as their success is a positive reflection on the university. We like to brag to our alumni, of course, but at the same time we are inspired by them. Seeing all the wonderful things they have accomplished gives us a lot of motivation to get up in the morning and do it all over again, preparing the next generation of engineers. Having those same alumni come back to Houghton, and express their gratitude to us for the difference we have made in their lives, makes these events that much more special.

To all our Husky alumni – thank you for everything you have done to make us look good! Keep up the good work!

– Dan

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


STEM & M (music)

Performing with Steve Jones & The Garden City Hot Club

Just for fun, I thought I would write about music this week.

As most of my friends and acquaintances know, music has always been a big part of my life. I started classical piano lessons at age 6, learned about jazz in high school, and have been a semi-professional musician on the side all my adult life. I play keyboards in a variety of styles – jazz, popular, salsa, blues – and have a great time doing it. Oddly enough, I have found as many opportunities to play publicly in the tiny little communities of Houghton and Hancock as I have anywhere I have lived!

A lot of people I meet say something like, “wow, that’s so unusual, you can be both an engineer and a musician!” Actually, it’s not that unusual at all. I know a lot of engineers, especially electrical engineers, who have music as a hobby. On the back cover of the latest edition of the The Circuit, our alumni magazine, there is a photo taken at the annual Christmas party of seven ECE faculty members who are also musicians (plus one student, a drummer who was there at the time and who just graduated and took a job with Black & Veatch.) I think there is a natural connection between the two. Electrical engineers have a natural affinity for concepts like signals, systems, frequency, harmonic analysis, etc. and so we “get” a lot of the physics of sound and the organization of music. The craft of music is rather abstract, and a bit mathematical, and we engineers like that stuff. In academics, we are all performance artists in the classroom anyway, so getting over our stage fright and hamming it up come naturally.

It is reasonable to ask, did the engineering influence the music or was it the other way around? In my case, I did well in both piano lessons and in math as a young boy, and as I got into electrical engineering in college, I realized that a lot of concepts I was seeing in communication theory and related courses were a piece of cake, because of that musical training.  So I think in my case the music really did have an influence on the path I chose professionally, and it is no accident that I went into signal processing as my technical area of expertise. On the other hand, we have the example of Tim Schulz, our former chair and dean who, after coming back into the ECE Department as a regular faculty member, decided to take up guitar as the first musical experience of his life. He has taken to it like a fish to water, and is loving every minute. So, I suppose it goes both ways.

I am writing about this not just to toot my own horn (no pun intended), but rather to make a point about the importance of performing arts in K-12 education. I love art and music so I am perfectly happy with the notion of ars gratia artis, that is, arts education is valuable in and of itself. However, even if one were to push singlemindedly for STEM education because of its importance to our national economic development, I would still claim that arts education cannot be overlooked.  There is something about the training that goes along with learning music that enhances the mind and opens it up to math and science.  Students who practice their instruments 30 minutes or an hour a day learn the discipline they need to master other academic fields. By participating in band and orchestra they learn teamwork and cooperation, and in a beautiful way they also learn the value of diversity because of the way all the different instruments contribute to the whole. Perhaps most importantly, performing arts gives young people the opportunity to learn how to do something specific and concrete, and to demonstrate that they have mastered their skills in a public performance. The self-image and the confidence that goes along with that is invaluable. (The same argument can be applied to athletics, and I can see that too.) Engineering students don’t get a chance to do that until much later. So, I will always stand behind music and arts education as an important piece of STEM education.

Have a wonderful 4th of July weekend everyone! Get out there and support your local musicians!

– Dan

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


ECE Hosts SYP’s Women In Engineering Week

FWF_image_20160624
WIE participants learn soldering skills in the ECE teaching lab for their take-away Drawdio projects.

Fridays with Fuhrmann, June 24, 2016

This week Michigan Tech is hosting our Women in Engineering program, part of our larger Michigan Tech Summer Youth Programs. WIE is a high school program that brings young women with an interest in science and engineering to campus, and gives them a chance to investigate a variety of engineering careers across all disciplines. Participants work in teams on interesting and challenging engineering projects, get insight from role models working in industry, learn about the college application process, experience college life, and enjoy team competitions, entertainment, and outdoor activities. As an added bonus this year, the weather has been absolutely spectacular and so our guests get to see what a great place the Keweenaw can be in the summer.

We have about 360 young women coming through ECE Department in this year’s program. ECE Associate Chair Glen Archer organizes things at a high level, and ECE PhD student and soon-to-be graduate Jenn Winikus is in charge of implementing the program and really being the face of the ECE Department for the participants. I thank them both for their hard work and outstanding efforts.

I have touched on this in previous columns, but it bears repeating that bringing more women into engineering fields, especially electrical and computer engineering, remains an important and perplexing problem. Our undergraduate female enrollment in the ECE Department has hovered around 10% for many years. Recent trends point to a slight increase, but we are nowhere near the percentage of female college enrollment overall, or even in engineering. We spend a lot of time wondering why this should be the case, and what we can do about it.

The first question that one unfamiliar with our field might ask is, are young women scared off because they cannot handle the rigors of an electrical engineering education? The answer to that is an unequivocal no, and in fact the suggestion of such a thing would be considered offensive around here. There is no evidence to suggest that women are any less capable in math, science, and engineering topics and engineering design skills than their male counterparts, in fact all of our everyday experience here points to a strong capable group of women making their way through our programs just like the men. They engage in all of our educational and leadership programs and are highly recruited by industry. Some might suggest there is a “confidence gap”, in which women who struggle with the material lose confidence in their ability to overcome obstacles and achieve success. While this can certainly happen, I see it just as often with some of our male students who aren’t getting it and decide to take a different path. Michigan Tech is making a major effort to support students, both men and women, who need a little extra push to be successful in their first year or two and continue in the program. How much we should be doing is a matter of some debate, but on the whole I am supportive of efforts to see our students gain the confidence they need to succeed in our educational programs and enter the engineering workforce.

So, if ability is not the issue, then could it be interest? Some say that women are more interested in the “helping professions”, which might explain the much popularity of programs in biomedical engineering and environmental engineering. Personally, I reject this notion.  What could be more “helping” than providing reliable electrical power to an entire population, providing reliable worldwide communication, developing the technologies that keep our soldiers safe abroad and our citizens secure at home, or designing a wide array of products for the audio and visual entertainment? Perhaps we need to work harder to educate everyone on all the ways that electrical and computer engineers have helped humanity. Even as you read this, you are taking advantage of technology developed over the past decades by thousands of electrical engineers, and as you walk away from your computer and turn to other activity, chances are you are going to pick up something else that has ECE fingerprints all over it. We help, we really do!

Maybe there is something about the profession itself that women find unattractive. This, outside of just not knowing what the opportunities are, is the argument that makes the most sense. It is true that electrical engineering (and mechanical engineering too) are fields that are dominated by men. Young women surveying that landscape simply may not see a place for themselves and their future. Women can look at biologists, doctors, or biomedical engineering, and easily project themselves into those professions because there is so much parity already. The workplace environment just looks so much more inviting in those fields. Stories about the “brogramming” culture in Silicon Valley don’t help much either. There is plenty of work to be done to make sure that our workplaces and our educational institutions are places that are welcoming to all, and a little extra effort is needed in electrical engineering to make that obvious, as it should be, when it comes to women.

It comes down to a chicken and egg problem – the fields of electrical and computer engineering need to attract more women, and the way to do that is for the fields of electrical and computer engineering to have more women in them. While we continue to struggle to reach a “tipping point” in this regard, we do what we can, like hosting the Women in Engineering program and diversifying the concentrations in our educational programs. More importantly, we need to be vigilant in maintaining a constant awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and I am beginning to realize that inclusion is the more important piece of the two. It is not enough to bring people with a variety of gender and ethnic backgrounds into the organization; all people must feel like that are part of the inside group, making decisions and being responsible for the success of the organization. I see that here at Michigan Tech and I am certain it is an issue in engineering workplaces nationwide. This is an area where I will push for change as long as I am ECE chair at Michigan Tech.

Speaking of which – and I’ll close with this – last week I signed my reappointment letter which keeps me in this position for four more years (I have one year remaining in my current term, and will start a new 3-year term in 2017.) I look forward to serving Michigan Tech and the ECE Department, and continuing to share my experiences with you.

– Dan

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


Fridays with Fuhrmann: Spring into Summer

FWF_image_20160520It is a fabulously beautiful day in the Keweenaw, and I am taking the day off to get some things done around the house, and to get ready to spend the weekend with some good friends at a cabin on Lake Superior, about an hour north of town.

Back around the time of Winter Carnival, I took a break from writing about engineering and education, and focused instead on snow and winter recreation in the Copper Country. Later on this summer I will do the same for all the summertime recreational opportunities, which are also abundant.

Today I just want to say that I am very much looking forward to the summer, which is starting about now. We don’t get much in the way of spring in Houghton. In April and early May there is an “in-between” time when the snow is melted but the days are still cold, often gray, and there is no green in the trees and grass. The town itself looks a little worn out from the long winter, and the streets are kind of dirty and dusty from all the stamp sand that was put down when there was snow. Then, all of a sudden – boom! – the weather warms up, the trees leaf out, the lawns turn green, the city cleans up the streets, and it is summertime.

Summertime also means long days in Houghton. They are made even longer, apparently, by a quirk in the time zones. Most of the Upper Peninsula, including Houghton County, is in the Eastern time zone. This is despite the fact that, if you draw a line straight north from Chicago, which is in the Central time zone, we are just to the west of that line. We are about as far west in the Eastern time zone as one can get. The “urban legend” is that this was done to keep the copper mines on the same time zone as the businesses in Boston that owned them. One implication for us is that, as we near the summer solstice in June, the sun goes down at around 9:50 p.m. and it stays light until 10:30 or 11:00. Even though we are not nearly as far north as, say, Alaska, in the middle of the summer one can still see a faint glow at night on the northern horizon that never gets completely dark.

Things are pretty quiet around campus. This is a time when a lot of faculty take vacation, go to conferences, or visit professional colleagues. We do teach summer classes in the ECE Department, but those classes tend to have a more relaxed and informal feel compared to the academic year. After Memorial Day things will pick up, as more people return to campus, taking advantage of the time to get some work done, make some progress on research projects, and maybe develop some new ideas and new directions.

One of the items on my “to-do” list for this summer is to develop a good strategic plan for the ECE Department, which the faculty can work on when we all get together again in August. I will let you know how that goes. Actually, the first item on the to-do list is to figure out how to do a better job managing the to-do list. But, I say that every year about this time.
Hope springs eternal.

Enjoy the summer everyone!

– Dan

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