Harvey Mudd’s top-ranked Department of Engineering is made up of talented individuals who provide diverse perspectives that enhance the College’s general engineering program. Here are a few of their stories.
Curricular Innovation and Our General Engineering Program
How does a College improve upon an engineering program that is routinely ranked No. 1 or 2 in the nation? By employing one of the field’s time-honored methods: continuous improvement.
During a Department of Engineering faculty retreat in January 2017, emeriti professors and current faculty members participated in a discussion about the development of HMC’s engineering program and where it stands now.
In devising the program, engineering department Chair Liz Orwin ’95 sought to gather diverse perspectives on HMC’s engineering program in order to inform discussions about the curriculum as the department evolves to meet student and industry needs.
Providing insight were engineering faculty leaders from the earliest years to the present.
- Mack Gilkeson, Professor of Engineering Emeritus (1961–1986); co-inventor and co-founder of the Clinic Program
- Richard Phillips, Professor of Engineering Emeritus (1966–2002); former department chair and Engineering Clinic director (17 years)
- John Molinder, Professor Emeritus of Engineering (1970-2015) and former department chair
- Jim Monson, Professor Emeritus of Engineering and former department chair
- Tony Bright, John Leland Atwood Professor of Engineering Science, former department chair and former Engineering Clinic director
- Ziyad Durón ’81, Jude and Eileen Laspa Professor of Engineering and former department chair
- Nancy Lape, associate professor of engineering, former associate department chair
- Chris Clark, professor of engineering and associate department chair
- Gordon Krauss, Fletcher Jones Professor of Engineering Design
- Albert Dato, assistant professor of engineering
The panel considered several questions, including: What has the general engineering curriculum meant for our identity as a program? What are the biggest changes you’ve seen? Is there something you wish we’d done, or something you would have changed in retrospect? How should the liberal arts context and the changes to the Colleges Core Curriculum inform our thought process?
“We’re talking a lot about our curriculum,” says Orwin. “What do we want to change, innovate? We want to make sure we don’t lose what makes us special. I thought this panel would be a way to get many perspectives to help us think about our curriculum over time and moving forward.”
Discussions revealed that some things are relatively conserved. The idea of general engineering and educating generalists is one thing everyone agrees on. That’s the department’s niche: generalists who are able to see the big picture and are able to make necessary connections to solve complex problems.
Molinder commented, and all agreed, that the biggest change that has impacted the program is the dramatic increase in computing power and the development of computer science, something that affects all engineering fields.
Monson said, “Our general engineering/design/systems way of thinking has contributed strongly to the perception that the Harvey Mudd engineer can take on anything and do it well.”
Participants also shared ideas about how to have a more intentional connection between technical work and humanities, social sciences and the arts/liberal context of education/impact on society.
The desire for the department’s connection to industry remains. The Clinic Program, an innovation of the engineering department in 1963, is strong and is an important way for engineering faculty to maintain ties with industry.
In a recent survey of engineering alumni and students, two areas of improvement that were identified were software proficiency and professional skills. Discussions are underway about where to add software courses into the curriculum.
“That’s part of the reason for this panel,” says Orwin. “We are asking questions like, has software engineering risen to the level of an engineering science, or is it something that should be included throughout all of our courses. And what do we give up if we add it?”
Regarding professional skills, panelists discussed how the department could be more intentional about helping students improve in this area. The recent addition of leadership development expert and entrepreneur Werner Zorman, the first to hold the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair in Leadership, is one step toward helping students become standout professionals.
“We’re continually informed by what’s going on in the outside world,” says Orwin. “We want to graduate students who can hit the ground running, whether they go to grad school or into industry.”
Prof. Brian Bryce: Breaking Barriers for Hardware Hackers
Innovation thrives when barriers to entry are reduced, professor believes
However, equipping his space proved challenging. Buying costly equipment, like optical microscopes and spectrum analyzers, on a grad-student stipend was an experience that stayed with him and fueled his passion for open-source scientific equipment.
Unlike that for hardware businesses, the barrier to entry is very low for software start-ups. There’s no pricey equipment to buy and open source software is free. It is difficult to start a hardware company without venture capital to buy lab equipment, and venture capitalists insist on control and patents—which can mean paying upwards of $100,000 for a patent attorney—to protect the inventor’s intellectual property.
Bryce believes that if the barrier to entry was lower, there would be more innovation.
“The system does not favor the little players, so my interest in openness is a reaction to having been a little player,” he says.
Physical electronics expert
Bryce, who joined the Department of Engineering in 2015, holds a PhD and master’s in applied physics from Cornell University and degrees in physics and electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. His research interests lie in physical electronics where “solid state physics meets electrical engineering.”
He was one year into a three-year, postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology where he worked on sensors and integrated measurement systems when he applied for the faculty position at Harvey Mudd. While there was more work to be done, Bryce wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that the position offered.
Being a professor had always been his long-term goal. At Harvey Mudd, Bryce knew he could do research and focus on delivering quality teaching, which he believed would be more impactful.
“Most of all, I like the impact on the trajectory of students’ outlook on things,” Bryce says. “You can find a student who has no interest in a topic who gets really excited about a topic as a result of your teaching.”
From living room to lab
All the equipment that once filled his living room is sitting in his Open Device Engineering Lab. Here, he’s devoted to creating useful tools and platforms that improve access to scientific information and enable research, development and prototyping work.
During summer 2016, Bryce worked with students to build a thermal evaporator, a projection lithography tool and a vacuum spin coder. They assembled a probe station from scratch.
“The cost of an off-the-shelf projection lithography tool would be at least $200,000, and I spent $4,000,” Bryce says.
All of the tools will form the basis for his spring elective course on semiconductor devices. His physical electronics course is designed to introduce semiconductor devices by allowing students to create and model them.
“Ideally, they’ll understand devices on a theoretical level, be able to create them in the lab, measure them, model their measurements, see how they agree with theory and close the loop,” Bryce says.
Prof. Matthew Spencer: The Aggressive Dabbler
Professor seeks to make Harvey Mudd a powerhouse school for analog engineering
As a UC Berkeley graduate student working on his dissertation, Matt Spencer sought a way to explain how to design circuits using micro-electric mechanical systems. So, of course, he created an interpretive dance video using cowboys and kung-fu.
He entered it in the Gonzolabs’ “Dance Your PhD” competition.
“With my martial arts background and various choreographers I knew, I thought for sure I would sweep it,” Spencer says. “But by the time I got around to entering, the quality of competition had improved tremendously, and I got fairly stomped.”
Martial arts are just one of many extracurricular passions for Spencer, an HMC engineering professor and self-described “aggressive dabbler.” Others include swing dancing, choir singing and most recently tai chi, which is easier on the body than wushu (another hobby), which involves wielding a six-pound wooden bench, among other items.
Spencer was introduced to wushu—“not to be confused with moo shu, which is pork”—while earning his PhD in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley, which claims the oldest collegiate wushu club in the nation, dating back to 1987.
A Harvey Mudd visit becomes permanent
Initially, Spencer had planned to work in an industrial research lab and then make a bid for an R1 research university. Then, HMC engineering Professor David Harris recruited him at a conference and sold him on visiting Harvey Mudd for a year. Spencer enjoyed teaching and thought it would be a nice break before “hopping into the industrial millstone for the next 30 years.”
“It was a really good year,” Spencer says. “The students exceeded my expectations, my coworkers were great, I liked all the professors, and the job was fun.”
A tenure-track position opened up the following year, and he applied.
Coming to Harvey Mudd allowed Spencer to broaden his research interests to include radio-frequency design, phase change memory, automated analog design and PCB ground plane optimization.
His radio-frequency lab is up and running thanks to the efforts of several students who were involved every step of the way from specifying parts, ordering equipment and winning government auction bids. The team also built software that allows the lab instruments to be controlled by student laptops, which allows more complex automation of the facility.
“The lab would not be in the shape it’s in today without the help of four students who worked on it with really great success, and I’m really grateful to them,” Spencer says. “It’s getting traction, and I’m excited about that.”
He’s planning on offering a radio-frequency design course in the spring largely built around the radio-frequency lab. That course is one of several advanced electives he hopes to bring online, including an advanced analog course where students can explore how to make a chip that takes complicated mixed signal measurements.
“There’s a lot of room for Harvey Mudd’s analog curriculum to grow, and I’m super excited about making Mudd a powerhouse school for analog engineering,” Spencer says.
Emerging technology devices require a ground-up rethink
One of Spencer’s research projects is exploring the design of ground planes on circuit boards, a venerable problem. Ground planes ensure that every device on the circuit board has the same reference voltage, and their design can be tricky if sensitive analog circuits and noisy digital circuits are packed close to one another.
“There are various ways to design these things but, remarkably, no one has published a credible paper on what actually works and what doesn’t,” Spencer says. “We are doing that.”
He’s particularly interested in the prospects presented by emerging technologies, an area of research that is gaining traction.
“Emerging technology devices have radically different physics than we are used to, and they work differently than devices that are currently on the market,” Spencer says. “As a result, the circuit design you have to use in order to incorporate them into computers requires a ground-up rethink of how you would normally build memory. And being able to do that ground-up rethink is pretty rewarding. There’s a lot of room for creativity.”
Several of Spencer’s students are working with him on software called the Berkeley Analog Generator to automate analog design, something that has challenged researchers since the 1980s. The software could impact industry by allowing people to codify existing, complex, analog designs in a way that can be repeated.
“As that gets off the ground, we’ll start building some interesting chips and see where that takes us,” Spencer says. “It’s going slowly, but we’ll get there.”
Beyond his research, Spencer is part of a faculty committee working to revise the curriculum for E79, the introductory engineering class that all Harvey Mudd students take as part of the College’s interdisciplinary focus, and E80, the follow-up course for engineering majors.
After a decade of having students build rockets for their final project, students in E80 now construct sophisticated underwater robots and deploy them in the ocean off of Catalina Island. Students in E79 have the opportunity to build simpler underwater robots that can be tested in the Bernard Field Station lake across the street from the College.
“These are students who have never done any engineering before,” Spencer says. “They will have to assemble a robot and build a payload capable of measuring temperature and pressure so they can plumb the depths of the lake and figure out its temperature profile.”
Prof. Gordon Krauss: The Cutting Edge
Engineering professor challenges students to question traditional assumptions
It was Krauss, working for Schick, who invented a shaver lubrication strip that transformed the industry. Today, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Engineering Design is using his design and development knowledge to instruct Harvey Mudd College engineering students. It all began in his father’s New Jersey machine shop, where Krauss learned the fundamentals of problem solving as he snipped solder and performed other tasks.
“My dad taught me to use a mill, a lathe and more,” Krauss says. He says his dad showed him how to troubleshoot existing problems to find the root cause and to imagine soutions beyond those readily available. “Beyond that, he showed me how to cooperatively find solutions that worked for all those involved and to have a broader vision than optimizing mere narrow self-interest.” The die was cast.
Raised in Haddonfield, N.J., Krauss earned a PhD in mechanical engineering at Boston University. He soon joined the Ford Motor Co. Research Lab as a technical consultant analyzing the abrasiveness of diamond coatings. Later, he was hired by Schick, where he honed the skill of challenging traditional assumptions—a skill he now dispatches to his students.
“By carefully deconstructing the system and understanding how every aspect worked and contributed to the overall shave, I was able to invent the lubricating strip that went onto the Schick Hydro product,” Krauss says, adding that since the strip lasted longer people experienced an improved shaving experience. “We started by challenging many of our assumptions.”
Along the way Krauss developed a strong interest in teaching future engineers, and in 2013 he joined Harvey Mudd College, where his current research interests include friction, wear and lubrication in mechanical and biological systems, as well as design education. For the latter, Krauss examines how students provide feedback to each other on their design projects. Aspects of that involve written versus oral feedback, anonymous versus face-to-face feedback, and the differences in effectiveness of the feedback methods for men and women.
“As a student and later a professional, it occurred to me that designers—both students and professionals—are reticent to provide candid feedback on the performance of their design colleagues,” he says. “One of the things we’re looking at is how you teach people to give critical feedback with an appropriate professional tone.”
To Krauss, Harvey Mudd College is the perfect training ground for such instruction.
“Harvey Mudd has very smart students who are well engaged and really want to learn,” says Krauss, whose fall teaching schedule includes two courses: Introduction to Engineering Design, Manufacturing and Management (E4), and New Product Development (E181). “Our students are involved in their work, very dedicated and are really invested in helping each other. Those are qualities I appreciate.”
The multi-faceted engineer
They also are qualities that enable Krauss to press forward with the overriding goal he has for his students: to become outstanding, multidisciplinary engineers.
“I want them to be optimally positioned and well-informed to make excellent career and life choices,” he says. “Mudd has an amazing advantage in that we don’t have a disciplinary engineering program—students don’t throw up a wall and say, ‘I’m a mechanical engineer—I can’t do chemical engineering.’ Our students are trained in all the engineering disciplines, and often that gives them a leg up.”