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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Engineering the Future

Planning for this summer began a long time ago, back in August of last year. I felt very fortunate to have been able to be part of the goings on at the BU Photonics center in 2010, and spoke with Prof. Altug, my cooperating professor from BU about the possibility of coming back for a second visit. There were really two reasons for doing this – the first one was that we collaborated really well together and helped design some teaching materials that people seemed to like. The second was that seven weeks is waaayyyyy too short of a time to digest even a small percentage of what’s going on at a professional research facility, and I hoped to be able to learn more to bring back for my students. During the year, a few students at SJP and I

made some strides at helping bring more of an understanding of research science to the school, visited a couple of research sites and did some experimenting with lasers. Nanomaterials and Photonics are such hot topics in the world of research right now that both of the AAPT conferences I attended had it as their main topic, and I got to hear from many angles how the world of nano-research is shaping the future of engineering. Along the way in May, we heard back from NSF that our grant proposal for me to come back for another summer was approved – Psych!!

When June of this year rolled around, I got a surprise email from Prof. Altug asking me to go out to RPI for a conference. That turned out to be a fantastic experience – I love visiting schools to see what people do there, and I’d never been to RPI before. My awesome wife took a day off from work to come with me, and we made it into a road trip. What I saw was actually something like an audit – scientists and others from the National Science Foundation were conducting a public hearing of sorts where members of the RPI community described what they had been doing with the millions

in Federal grant money they’d gotten. I’m certainly no expert, but it seemed to me that NSF representatives asked a lot of tough questions, and challenged researchers not only to show progress, but also to prove that they were being responsible with their grant money. My little bit in the thing was to chat with people and explain to them what we had done during my summer RET experience, which turned out to be awesome.

I met with Prof. Ken Connor from RPI, and with professors from several other colleges in the research program, and we sat down together to share teaching strategies. Educational outreach is a huge part of work that professors do these days, and it’s a thread that will work its way through all of the blog posts that I do this summer. There has been a lot of talk centered on the need of U.S. schools to educate more engineers, and to educate citizens about what job opportunities exist in the future. In many ways, developing enough people with technical skills is a fundamental challenge that every society faces in the world today. The group’s work in Ghana centered around making

low-cost education in electrical engineering available through the mobile studio, a piece of hardware developed at RPI. The wealth of our countries is very different, but the challenge is the same – how to present students with a sense of the exciting challenges the future holds, while giving them the tools they need to tackle those challenges.

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