Category Archives: Collaboration

Sometimes it is Just Really Easy

Many of my good friends will tell you that I am not particularly good at telling a short story. I seem to remember too many details and get obsessed with sharing them all. Once-in-a-while, I tell one of my stories and a really clever student hears it and does something amazing. Such experiences obviously do not discourage me from taking my time to get to my point. The story that I would like to tell now has two parts because telling it one time gave it a second chapter. I will begin the story at chapter two.

In my early years at RPI, the Plasma Lab (where my wonderful colleagues, students and I got to have great fun doing diagnostics for nuclear fusion experiments for 35+ years), was located in the MRC Building because we were part of what was then the EEE Division (Electrophysics and Electronic Engineering) … basically the physics side of electrical engineering. The drinking age was 18 so we regularly had a keg every Friday afternoon. Weather permitting, we drank at the loading dock, but other times in the lab. Most of the building, which also housed Materials Science and Engineering (still does) contributed in some way to the cost of the beer and everyone drank their share. This allowed everyone to wind down at the end of the week. (Note that it was possible at that time to get a temporary liquor license for on campus parties, which we did religiously every week.)

The general camaraderie led everyone to tell stories. One of the stories that I told had to do with a special experience I had as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin. When I was a junior EE student, I worked as a researcher in a solid state lab run by Professors Al Scott and Jim Nordman. They were two great people to work for. As an undergrad, I did not work directly for either of them but rather for one of Jim’s students Juris Afanasjevs. (See their letter in the November 1967 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE for the project I worked on.) Juris was quite the character. In addition to his talents as an engineer, he was also a good musician, playing the organ with Bach being among his favorite composers. (This is how I remember things … I have since learned too often that my memories are always a little faulty. However, I think I have most of this correct.) The EE department had a UNIVAC computer at the time, which was not heavily used because so few students and faculty knew how to program it. One day, after hours, Juris decided we should program it to play music (specifically Bach). The only outputs computers in that era produced were blinking lights, so he set out to program the lights and then connect amplifiers to them to make it possible to hear the tones produced. I had some programming skills but this was his idea and I helped only as he directed me. He was ultimately successful in producing some music which really amazed me. My point in telling the story was to show that there were always opportunities to do some fun things with technology if one had the skills, access to equipment and a willingness to do things without asking permission. We did not do anything really unsafe, but the computer was pretty expensive and not supposed to be used in this manner.

At the Friday session where I told the story was Dave Ellis, who was one of the many undergrads I recruited to work in the Plasma Lab. In Dave’s case, I hired him to help take care of our Data General Minicomputer, which was one of my responsibilities in the lab. The computer was purchased before I was hired at RPI and I had to attend two weeks of training at Data General headquarters in the Boston area to learn how best to use it and train others. This had a big impact on my computer knowledge and the minicomputer was one of the most important tools we had to do Heavy Ion Beam Probe system design. Dave was absurdly smart (his roommate John Barthel said it was like living with the answer book), and had a great career working with Steve Schoenberg at SIXNET cut short by an all-to-early death. No one who worked with Dave forgot the experience. He is really missed.

Other stories were told that day but my computer music story apparently inspired Dave. The next morning I came in to use the computer (we scheduled it 24/7 because it was so essential to our work). When I booted it up, I found some new files, one of which was called ‘Suicide,’ which you might imagine was a bit unnerving. However, when I ran it, I discovered that it played the theme song from MASH, ‘Suicide is Painless.’ (A reference to the story behind this song by Michael Bingham [another of my great students] on Facebook – see – inspired me to finally write this down.) Elsewhere on the computer I found several more songs Dave had programmed, all done since we ended the party Friday night. He was the kind of student we only had to suggest something to and it would get done. All the grad students made excellent use of his talents when they were doing their simulation studies on the computer. I have always encouraged my students to be very independent, even suggesting that if they never break anything they are not trying hard enough. Dave knew this even before he came to work in the lab. He was so great to have around that we supported him as an undergrad and as a grad as her pursued two masters degrees (one in EE and one in CS). It was during this time, I think, that he started to work for Steve.

Throughout my career as an educator, I have been very fortunate to know a lot of great students. Very few had Dave’s native talent, but I have enjoyed working with everyone who grew both as engineers and people. When I was a grad student, there were other students who were absurdly bright like Dave, who really added to my own personal education. Never hesitate to find such people, especially the nice ones, and learn as much as you can. The experience, while often very humbling, is definitely worth it.


The Power of Partnerships

The following was originally published in the October 2014 issue of ECE Source 

Probably the best part of the ECEDHA value proposition, at least as I see it, is the opportunity the organization provides to develop friendships and partnerships with the wonderful people who fill the challenging, rewarding and, frankly, fun role of running ECE or similar departments. In my active years in ECEDHA, many heads and chairs helped me in countless ways to do my job better … much better than I would ever have been able to do alone.

The collaborative culture ECEDHA promotes is really wonderful and probably a little too unique in the business of engineering education. It shows what can be done if we think of ourselves more as a country-wide or world-wide discipline than a few hundred islands striving for excellence. It is too often the case that the talented faculty who work in our departments mostly develop and deliver the best educational experience they can without ever really interacting with their peers from other institutions.

As we all contemplate ways to improve the first year experience for ECE students, we should look for ways to build partnerships rather than each going our own way.

I have been very fortunate throughout my long career as an electrical engineering professor to work in a wide variety of very effective collaborations. In my research on particle beam based diagnostics for nuclear fusion experiments, I got to work as part of teams at places like Oak Ridge National Lab, the Universities of Texas and Wisconsin, Nagoya University in Japan, and the Ioffe Institute in Russia. In fusion diagnostics research we built up an international group of people working on the same fundamental ideas. We created quite the mutual admiration society of like-minded people who worked together to promote our collective goals. However, no matter how successful we were or how much we helped one another, we only impacted a relatively small group. Our community at its peak was less than 100.

Recently, I have become part of even more rewarding partnerships as I have transitioned my research to engineering education which has the potential to impact everyone in STEM. I think the typical successful professor has a local focus for education and more of a global focus for research. ECEDHA shows what we can do when we find an activity that can impact our entire discipline and not just power, controls, communications or circuits, etc. as large as those sub-disciplines may be. Two of the partnerships I have enjoyed being part of show the potential for collaborative efforts that can impact the first year ECE experience.

Partnership #1: When Russ Pimmel was getting ready to leave his position at NSF, he conceived of a program where engineering faculty with common educational interests could be brought together in Virtual Communities of Practice (VCP) as a mechanism for spreading research based pedagogy (aka DBER in the National Academies Press report Discipline-Based Education Research). With the help of ASEE, funding was obtained from NSF to create a small number of these interactive, collaborative communities of instructors. Lisa Huettel (Duke ECE) and I were asked to organize the VCP for Circuits in which we engaged 20 active participants from ECE programs all over the US.

We met online weekly for 90 minutes for nine weeks in Spring 2013 and followed up with additional meetings in the fall. We also shared ideas on an online portal with all technology supported by ASEE staff. Our schedule was reasonably aggressive. Our meetings addressed the following topics: Overview of Research-based Instructional Approaches, Learning Objectives and Bloom’s Taxonomy, Student Motivation, Teams and Scaffolding, Making the Classroom More Interactive, Simulation and Hands-On Learning, Assessing Impact, Great Ideas that Flopped, Course Design, Flipped Classroom and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The last topics were selected collectively by the group and included guest presentations from Cindy Furse (Utah ECE) on the Flipped Classroom and Bonnie Ferri (Georgia Tech ECE) on MOOCs.

The VCP interactions allowed participants to obtain feedback on their ideas and to explore new ideas that made it more likely that innovations they were planning would succeed. In most instances, the participants were working in something of a vacuum with few local colleagues trying anything similar. The group meetings, especially the breakout sessions, nearly always resulted in requests for additional information about ideas heard during discussions. Having someone who teaches a similar course want to duplicate or build on what one is doing helps promote success as much as hearing suggestions for improvement. There were many signs like these of a vigorous community of faculty working to improve the educational experiences of their students, with continued interactions between participants taking advantage of their expanded professional network while writing proposals, doing research and implementing research-based pedagogy in their courses.

The co-leaders also developed a solid online working relationship that served as a model for other VCP members. We did not know one another before this project and have only gotten to talk face-to-face at two ASEE meetings. In addition to sharing her knowledge of research based pedagogy with our group, Lisa also gave us an excellent opportunity to learn about the curriculum overhaul Duke underwent about several years ago for which the cornerstone was a theme-based introductory course entitled Fundamentals of ECE. Their efforts show how the first year experience can be improved as part of a major curriculum update. While she and her colleagues had reported on their work at more than one ASEE conference, the entire group got to know much more about details during our engaging online discussions.

Our experiences in the Circuits VCP were far from perfect. It was difficult to maintain the momentum of our interactions because many of the participants had their teaching assignments changed or were given new administrative responsibilities. There are many pressures that push the focus of good teachers back toward local issues. The most positive continued impact of this project has been in the growth of our personal networks, which I have definitely made good use of in my research.

Partnership #2: I have had the great good fortune to work with many remarkable people from the ECE departments at Howard and Morgan State, starting with the Mobile Studio Project and continuing with the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center. Because we found that Mobile Studio Pedagogy worked so well at these two great schools, we decided to introduce our ideas to the other HBCUs with engineering programs. This began with an Intel sponsored workshop in November 2009 in which most of the HBCU ECE departments participated. The growth of this community was nurtured at ECEDHA meetings starting in 2010, culminating in the creation of the HBCU Experiment Centric Pedagogy project, which received funding from NSF starting fall 2013. With excellent leadership from Howard ECE (Mohamed Chouikha and Charles Kim) and Morgan State ECE (Craig Scott and Yacob Astatke), the goal of this project is to create a sustainable Network of engineering faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to focus on the development, implementation, and expansion of an experiment-centric instructional pedagogy, based on the Mobile Studio. The project is implementing this pedagogy in 39 different courses across the 13 HBCUs participating in the network and studying the effect of the implementation on motivation and retention.

Morgan State, Tuskegee, Prairie View, Tennessee State Participants at December 2013 Workshop.

Student at Howard


HBCU ECP Partners:
Alabama A&M, Florida A&M, Hampton, Howard, Jackson State,
Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T,
Prairie View A&M, Southern, Tennessee State, Tuskegee

The initial focus of the project is on introductory circuits courses, with essentially everyone contributing and collecting common assessment data. The strong commitment to the project goals is also now expanding to address electronics (for majors and non-majors) and first year courses. With the able and continued assistance of Bob Bowman (RIT EE) and additional funding from Analog Devices, several partner schools are piloting Bob’s EE Practicum which provides a hands-on path for first year engineering students to explore the world of electronics using Digilent’s Analog Discovery.  Participants were introduced to the EE Practicum at the program’s second workshop held last summer. Like the Circuits VCP, the group also meets online every other week

Key to building this collaboration has been the vision and sustained efforts of the leadership group with support from the Smart Lighting ERC, NSF, ECEDHA, Analog Devices, Digilent, Intel and other organizations. This is the first major effort that brings together the great people involved in electronics intensive instruction at HBCUs and we hope it will lead to additional collaborations in research and education. Recently, ECEDHA members in the Mid-Atlantic Region have expressed a strong interest in joining this effort so some kind of affiliate membership is being worked on to broaden the sharing of experiences and content.

Both of these partnerships show what can be done if we invest the time and have the kind of networking and logistics infrastructure we enjoy through ECEDHA and ASEE.  The ECE community needs to build on what we have learned in these and similar efforts and find effective ways to create a community of practice for first year ECE experiences and get away from our traditional efforts based on local optimization.