Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Paul and Tom's Excellent Chinese Adventure

Part 1: How many engineering deans does it take to change the world?
The context is China … October 2011. Various academic societies including the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES), the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), and the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC) converged over the span of a week in Beijing and then Shanghai to discuss a wide range of issues concerning the current state and the future of engineering education. The conference participants were an impressive collection of 300+ engineering deans and senior university administrators from all over the world. 

Expectedly, there was a healthy contingent from China who offered fascinating insights into the particular needs of an emerging industrial superpower and the consequent pressures it places on the engineering profession and indeed, their society. Delegates from the so-called "developed" economies, or as Dr.Christophe Guy of Montréal's École Polytechnique put it, "emerged" economies, of Western Europe and North America offered their insights as well. We also had healthy input from many "yet to emerge" economies. A common theme among all of us, however, was that of nurturing innovation in our collective and regional education practice. The world has changed and will continue to do so and we need to become more nimble and proactive to properly prepare our next generation engineers for some pretty immense challenges.

Okay … so that was the academic part. For Paul and me, part of our goal was to explore the role of technology in modern education thinking. So we got fairly adept at shifting from cocktail party mode bantering about pedagogy and bold new initiatives, to absorbing immense amounts of demographic data on the various jurisdictions during the plenary sessions, and, to be honest, engineering a few opportunities to show off a bit of Quanser's technology mojo. For this trip, it meant showing off a new concept for control systems lab exercises.

Part 2: How many CEOs does it take to set up a fancy new demo?
Recently, the engineering team produced a prototype of a new control systems lab concept based on our QET (Quanser Engineering Trainer), LabVIEW, and our QUARC visualization software module. That's not all that impressive on its own, but the creative piece was to marry the technology to an application framework that presents all of the foundational concepts of modern control design and analysis in a motivating, visual, and richly interactive environment. Instead of memorizing the dozen rules of construction for a root locus plot, students explore the impact that roots have on the behavior of a realistic system - like a car in motion on a winding road. Instead of limiting exercises to the most trivial of examples, students engage in true system level complexity where dynamic systems meet environmental factors, and are influenced by human factors. Instead of 60 students falling asleep in the lecture room, you have eyes popping and adults giggling like five-year olds.

I'll be posting more details on this new concept in a future article. In China, our hope was to demonstrate the new concept to some profs, students, and business partners. So Paul packed up a large plastic case with QETs, a laptop, joystick, and countless other doo-hickies needed to show the system and dragged it throughout China (and subsequently Japan) and unleashed the demo to the masses having no sense of what kind of a reaction we would get.

Imagine if you will, an unairconditioned lab at the Tsing Hua University in Beijing (either best or second best Chinese engineering university depending on who you talk to) filled with curious profs, lab technicians, and grad students struggling to break through the language barrier as Paul and I go through the ritual introductory material of our presentation … then Paul proceeds to do his song and dance with the demo. First, we sense an eerie silence … then we hear the deafening sound of twenty jaws dropping … and then I witness half the audience rushing toward Paul hoping to actually touch and try out the demo. The reaction was literally that dramatic. Justin Bieber could not have triggered a more enthusiastic reaction.

Giggles of delight erupts at the Beijing Institute of Technology as students and profs try out our new demo!

Imagine further, a cluttered hotel room in Shanghai (Paul's … I tend to fold and pack my clothes away in the closet neatly) … Paul has set up the complete demo system on a table and is enchanting the Dean of Engineering from a prominent university in the middle east (incidentally Paul was also at that moment, suffering from a combination a bad cold, jet lag and CCDOD -- Chinese Crispy Duck Overdose) with the same demo. What other CEO would have the brass fortune cookies to invite a dean of engineering to his hotel room for a demo session!

A Shanghai hotel room converted into Quanser's new Chinese Demo Outpost
I will publicly commend my friend Paul for doing such an outstanding job at presenting this exciting concept. Having worked at a math company for so many years, my brain was trying to reconcile the equation:

CEO + CEdO + PC + 2QET + DAQ + 3 missing cables - demo engineer = chaos and humiliation

But somehow Paul managed to pull it together. Not only did he pour his heart and soul into the task but he was able to figure out all the nuts and bolts of the rig as well as any application engineer I've ever worked with. If that CEO gig doesn't work out, I'm sure we can find a good job for him in the field ;-)

- Tom Lee -

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