Sunday, February 26, 2012

A special visitor at the Quanser Center of Excellence at CoE Pune

The Quanser Center of Excellence at the College of Engineering Pune (CoEP), India officially opened its door only few months ago, but it is already getting international attention and proves its role as a regional - and international - hub of engineering collaboration and innovation. As such, it was an important stop for the delegates of the India Mission 2012, a joint business mission of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC) and the Town of Markham led by Mayor of Markham Frank Scarpitti.

Welcomed by the Director of the CoEP, Dr. A.D. Sahasrabudhe, Mayor Scarpitti and the delegates toured the college campus and laboratories. "The Quanser Center of Excellence is a regional hub of engineering education and expertise for knowledge dissemination and collaboration," Oye!Times quoted Carolina Moretti, Markham Councillor and Chair of the Economic Development Committee. "Quanser built a laboratory that supports everything from teaching basic engineering concepts to enabling advanced research in aerospace, robotics, mechatronics, structural dynamics and other engineering fields." CoEP is proud to be the first institution in India to host the Quanser Center of Excellence, and is ready to share its knowledge, expertise and best practices in engineering education with other institutions in the region.

Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of Markham, Ontario is welcomed at the College of Engineering Pune by its Director, Dr. A.D. Sahasrabudhe.
The drive for innovation is what CoEP and the Town of Markham share - with close to 900 high-technology and life sciences companies, Markham is known as Canada's high-technology capital. Growing the next generation of innovators is where Dr. Sahasrabudhe and Mayor Scarpitti see the potential for the future cooperation, focusing on various student-centric programs.

Mayor Scarpitti toured the Quanser Center of Excellence at CoEP, a regional hub of engineering expertise and collaboration.
 The visit by the delegation from Canada to the Quanser Center of Excellence at CoEP was short, but confirms the words of Paul Gilbert, CEO of Quanser: "A Quanser Center of Excellence will become a focal point of creative collaboration and best practices in engineering education. It will quickly become a magnet of information and inspiration for other institutions in the region."

Delegates of the Mission India 2012 during their visit at the Quanser Center of Excellence at CoEP.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bridges To Better Engineering Education

I often use the metaphor of the bridge when I speak on many of our projects at Quanser. Not only is it entirely appropriate and colorful for an engineering audience but it is a very useful metaphor when one discusses some of the most pressing challenges in global engineering education. Take for example, the challenge of building a strong conceptual and experiential bridge between the typical high school experience and the typical university program in engineering. It is true that most preparatory high school curricula will include the fundamental sciences and mathematics and the idea has always been the first year university curriculum will build upon this foundation using its own math and science courses. Following that would be the series of application courses which will take the student from the abstract to the concrete.

Bridging the gap between high school and university is essential.
The reality is that many engineering educators are experiencing significant disconnects between the high school experience and the university expectations. For them, this is a chasm that must be bridged. The consequences of doing nothing are actually quite severe. Not only is enrollment into the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs dropping in many jurisdictions, but the retention rate once students arrive is also disconcerting. Many universities have reported on the order of a third or more of these students dropping out or changing majors. These issues of qualified student recruitment and retaining the intellectual and emotional connection with young students on-campus is the highest priority challenges for many institutions.

Extra-curricular engineering experiences in high school are valuable.
Over the past week, I had the opportunity to meet and explore bridge-building ideas with individuals who are neck-deep into this very murky situation.

First stop was St. Louis to attend the annual Judge Advisor training session of the FIRST Robotics program. The Judge Advisor is the chief judge of each of the regional competitions as well as a participating judge in the national championships. Our group consists of primarily senior professionals from industry with a few forward-looking professors in the mix. All of us are volunteers and all of us believe in the positive benefit of a highly charged and ambitious extra-curricular engineering experience for high school students. The Judging Team is responsible for encouraging and rewarding those teams who not only excel in the technical dimensions of the competition but also the "big picture" aspects of engineering including ethics, entrepreneurship, and societal responsibility. At the annual training sessions, we converge, learn about changes in the competition, and most importantly, we welcome and train the cohort of new Judge Advisors who have been recruited during the previous year.
Alan and Cindy, Chief Judge Advisor for FIRST, moderate one of the more controversial moments during the sesson: "Why is it so bloody cold in St. Louis and how do we move next year's session to Hawaii"?
I'd like to report that we made huge progress and launched outrageous new ideas that will propel FIRST to new heights … but I can't. For the most part it was fairly well-organized and no-nonsense. The reality is, the FIRST concept works. It has found the formula for triggering a passion among an entire generation of young people who may not have had any opportunity to experience real world science and engineering. And it has also successfully integrated a richly multidimensional framework that promotes the complete experience and not just making robots dance. The annual training weekend is really a chance for us to reaffirm our belief and commitment to the values of FIRST and with a bit of luck come up with a few clever ideas for the upcoming season.

Teaching more rigorous engineering concepts in high school is seen as key.
Following St. Louis, I moved on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of the famed University of New Mexico (UNM). Over the years, it has earned a reputation as a top tier research university in the US and boasts a broad range of academic achievements.

A couple of months ago, Professor Ramiro Jordan of UNM's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department visited the Quanser offices to discuss our potential participation in a new UNM initiative to introduce more rigorous engineering concepts into the high school system. Their model is the Advanced Placement (AP) system. In the AP system, high school students can take more challenging versions of English, physics, math and so on - the so-called core courses - and receive university level credit for them prior to entering the freshman year. This allows the student to either take a broader range of courses or accelerates their time in university.

The faculty at UNM felt that they could apply the same concept with the primary freshman engineering courses. That is, have students study engineering computing, design, and other key concepts in high school. So an AP student can theoretically complete an entire semester's worth of engineering studies prior to arrival on campus. The first step was an exploratory session with university and high school officials. Joining me for this leg of the trip was Quanser founder Jacob Apkarian.

We were invited to the discussion because of our work in developing new education concepts in undergraduate engineering. In addition to the many logistical challenges of this initiative, there is also a parallel set of issues surrounding the relevance of the existing freshman engineering curriculum for the modern world. If we're going to go through the effort of shifting courses down to the high school, we might as well reflect on the quality of the courses, some of which are over twenty years old.

Modern engineering education requires an engaging, hands-on approach.
The Quanser perspective is fairly straightforward. You cannot have effective engineering education without thoroughly modern, engaging, hands-on lab experiences. This was the founding principle of the company and, over time, we've developed a strong reputation as an industrial partner who is genuinely active and forward-thinking on matters of engineering education. Jacob and I were delighted find that our strong opinions on the importance of the lab were shared by all at the table.

The core questions of "What should be the primary concepts of freshman engineering?" and "How can labs bring these labs to life?" consumed the larger part of our two day visit and in the end, we were given an opportunity to explore these concepts in more detail back at Quanser and return with a complete proposal.
Jacob Apkarian, founder of Quanser, in discussions with Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty at the Univesity of New Mexico.
There are many things that we do at the company that are exciting and important but this particular discussion seems that much more exciting and important. First is the sheer intellectual challenge of adapting modern engineering practice to a level appropriate for high school students, while at the same time maintaining the high academic standards of a leading university. But there is also the human dimension. My children are 16 and 13 so I, like all parents, have developed some very strong opinions on high school education. As good as their school is, the deficiencies and disconnects are all too evident. This is especially pronounced in the context of STEM education. Extended to the societal level, most of us would agree, I believe, that creating a more cohesive and enriching education experience from K12 right on to grad school is one of the more noble quests in any society.

Our concepts are starting to take shape. And the totality of Quanser expertise is beginning to guide our thinking. At this early stage, we have no idea how far this initiative will go in making a real difference in the lives of our children but it's very satisfying to know that we have been recognized as part of the answer and I feel very privileged that we are going to vigorously take on this complex challenge.

- Tom Lee
As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Controls Experiment ROTPEN QNET on NI ELVIS Wows Grade 8 Girls Interested in Engineering

Every year, Blair McKay, the electronics teacher at Listowel District Secondary School, invites Grade 8 students to his custom-designed electronics lab. During the electronics workshops - eDays - the students can find out more about electronics and robotics and engage in hands-on activities.

The eDays are held separately for boys and girls so the students are less constrained by gender stereotypes. Girls in particular seem more confident and enthusiastic when they aren’t worried about what the boys are thinking. For the girls eDay, the guest speakers are all women who have exciting careers in electrical engineering, computer engineering and mechatronics.

I have been a guest speaker at eDays since 2004. This year, I talked to the girls about how much fun I have working at Quanser, and I showed them one of our co-developed teaching solutions, Quanser's QNET Rotary Inverted Pendulum Trainer (ROTPEN QNET), which integrates with the National Instruments ELVIS II platform. It's designed to captivate young minds interested in understanding the basic self-balancing principles used in space flight. The girls were impressed that the trainer could balance a vertical rod on the tip of a rotating arm, especially after Blair McKay demonstrated how difficult it is to balance a ruler on the tip of his finger! 

Grade 8 students get a closer look at the ROTPEN QNET (inverted pendulum) experiment in order to gain a better understanding of  the self-balancing principles used in space flight.

“The goal of these workshops,” says Blair, “is to encourage young people to consider careers in electronics, robotics and computer engineering. It is a pleasure to have Heidi be a part of the girls eDay program. She always does a great job, sharing her passion for engineering. It is evident to everyone present that she enjoys working at Quanser. The fact that she is able to demonstrate some of Quanser's really cool products is an added bonus. My only regret with having her at Listowel District Secondary School is that she never leaves behind any of her toys!”

The eDay workshops are clearly successful at attracting young women to take electronics in high school. At Listowel District Secondary School, Grade 9 electronics is taught as part of an Introduction to Technology class, and there are typically two full all-girl classes!