Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Engineering Supermodels

In my third year as an undergrad, I was fortunate to have taken a course in system simulation from a jazz musician trapped in an engineer's body. He later became my supervisor for my Master's degree. Most of my peers considered this course to be the proverbial "bird" course -- not very challenging and the material seemed a tad stale. For me, it was nothing short of an epiphany. Sometime during that course, my entire understanding of the engineering curriculum changed.

The most memorable part of this life changing experience is the realization that calculus exists for the sole purpose of modeling (pure math readers out there, please humor me). The rate of change (a derivative) fundamentally describes variation in the physical world and powerful tools allow you to literally integrate these change elements over any domain of interest. Of course this is a gross trivialization but in some sense, it's helpful to walk away from the trees and weedy bits and notice the sign that says Sir Isaac Newton National Forest.

In my past life, I was immersed in the world of engineering models. As part of the Maplesoft company, producers of the famous math tool Maple, and more recently, a full-blown physical modeling software tool called MapleSim, I explored a wide range of pedagogical avenues that stressed the importance of rich models for effective engineering.

Last week, Quanser engineer Dr. Derek Wight and I attended the Second Annual Summer Workshop on Educational Applications of MapleSim, held at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. Although the main focus for the meeting was the software aspect of modeling and engineering education, it was a very revealing experience now that I have Q colored glasses on as part of the Quanser team.

The modeling community, like any technical community, has its own comfort zone where people vigorously debate the virtues of this formulation technique or the hazards of that solver. But in the end it's still a model and by definition it's an abstraction of the real physical world. The real world is highly complex, non-linear, and often entirely unpredictable. We as engineers however, have to somehow get some understanding of this complexity and introduce measures to produce predictable, beneficial outcomes. The basic question of how can educators impart this dose of reality into the curriculum has plagued profs for decades. Last week, I got an entirely new perspective on this challenge part of a company that made its name on hardware.

The future direction of engineering education, and control education in particular, will inevitably depend on the effective interplay among the key ideas of mathematics, science, modeling, and experimentation. Quanser, along with key partners like Maplesoft, represent an unprecedented educational workflow that can help students deal with the emerging complexities of engineering systems. From initial concepts, to high fidelity virtual models, to realistic harware in the loop simulation and control, to ultimately imparting that elusive big picture of engineering design, we have an immense opportunity to bring true excitement, insight, and relevance into the curriculum. I really believe that we're on the verge of something truly important for the world and I'm sure you're going to hear a lot more about these ideas in the months to come.

My jazz musician supervisor was living proof that good things happen when you put two completely different schools of thought together. Seeing this philosophy play out as my past life converged with my present and future life at the workshop was truly music to my ears.

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