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.
Prof. Mary Cardenas: Try, Try Again, Repeat
Knowing how to change a tire isn’t rocket science. But engineering professor Mary Cardenas, a former rocket scientist herself, believes that knowing how to perform basic, hands-on tasks like fixing a flat or soldering a fuse wire are fundamental skills all scientists should have.
“The way the world works has changed,” she says. “We’re getting a lot of students who don’t have a lot of hands-on skills. We have fewer woodworkers. We don’t see welders anymore. The students’ world is different, so they’re learning different skills.”
For this reason, Cardenas, the Anthony W. LaFetra Family Chair in Environmental Engineering, has developed E49: Build Cool Things, a first-year elective course that teaches students hands-on skills necessary for work in STEM fields. Students gain experience and intuition of how things work by putting things together and taking things apart, and they attain skills with manual fabrication and building. The course is designed for the student with little to no hands-on skills or previous building experience. “As practicing engineers, we have to make things and know how to fix them if they break. You can’t 3-D print everything,” she says.
Cardenas chooses assignments that look simple but are not necessarily easy to complete— a small hovercraft, audio equipment (amplifiers and speakers) and myriad electronic and mechanical devices—with the idea that students will have time to do the project more than once, improving their skills each time. “I want to give them something they find interesting and I want them to have to practice a skill,” she says. “Maybe the first time doesn’t work very well, and the second time you get better at it, and the third time you get pretty good. No matter what your talents are, it’s hard for everyone at the beginning.”
A former jet propulsion engineer, Cardenas built rocket engines for the Space Shuttle before becoming a professor at Harvey Mudd in 1995. She says she loves teaching and is especially grateful to be able to share her experience with her students in such an intimate setting. “Everyone struggles the first time through, and I get to say, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen, let’s try again,” she says.
Cardenas encourages students to look online for tutorials and ideas and notes that learning how to teach oneself new things is part of the process. “I didn’t have to study a lot in high school, so when I got to college, I actually had to tech myself how to teach myself. For me to get good and fast enough to take tests, I had to practice. You can apply the same idea of practice that you apply to learning a musical instrument or a sport to your academics.”
The audio equipment project was a favorite of Adam Grobman ’21, who took the class in fall of 2017. “We got to make something large scale and learn how to use even more machines. I still have the speakers I built sitting on my desk, and it’s cool to know that I built something like that. I definitely never imagined I’d build my own set of speakers in my life.”
Grobman fit the description of having little to no previous experience with hands-on building. “The extent to which I’d built stuff by hand before the class was an art project in, like, first grade, where we used hot glue and precut wooden blocks and then a physics project in eighth grade, neither of which used any of the machinery like the table saw or bandsaws that we learned how to use in the class.”
Natasha Crepeau ’21 did have some experience prior to taking E49, but she learned new skills. “I took woodshop in my junior year of high school, so I was familiar with using saws, routers and drill presses. I did not have any experience with soldering and circuitry, which was a large part of the class. I actually taught an introduction to electronics and soldering workshop at the summer program I worked at this summer. Without E49, I wouldn’t have been able to teach that.”
Crepeau also learned the larger lesson Cardenas is teaching about perseverance. “I was anxious about not getting things on the first try,” Crepau says. “One thing that helped relieve my anxiety was how we were evaluated. Prof. Cardenas graded us on the quality of our lab reports and documentation and our effort, not how successful we were with creating a final product. The atmosphere within the classroom was also very calming and ‘low stakes,’ which also helped with anxiety.”
Grobman has a similar take. “I’m not gonna lie, some of the times getting things right was a bit stressful,” he says. “In the final project, I was making speakers, and one of the cases I built just didn’t work, so I made a new one. Other teams finished faster. Nevertheless, the class was always really focused on just trying and trying, and so it wasn’t super high pressure. It truly was just about trying your best and making progress.”
“I hope all the students can apply this philosophy to their other courses and even to life,” Cardenas says. “If you can fail and try again and again, I won’t worry about you.”
Prof. Albert Dato: Better Than Diamonds
When Albert Dato devised a method of turning alcohol into graphene, he was thoroughly disappointed. The black powder his experiments rendered was not at all what he was hoping for.
“Originally, I was throwing vodka into a machine because I was trying to grow diamonds,” says Dato, Iris and Howard Critchell Assistant Professor of Engineering. “When my experiments failed, I was turning vodka into graphite.”
The machine he used for this experiment, a microwave plasma reactor, uses ionized gas to break apart the ethanol in vodka, a process he originally hoped would produce a diamond, one of the two stable forms of carbon. Instead he produced single layers of graphite, the other stable form of carbon, aka pencil lead, aka not as exciting as diamonds. But it turns out that graphene, which is a single layer of graphite, is perhaps an even better result than diamonds, for reasons that are scientific, environmental and economic.
Graphene is the strongest material ever measured. It also conducts heat and electricity well. It’s a material that could potentially be used in any number of applications. And, up to the point of Dato’s discovery, graphene was incredibly difficult to produce as it had to first be mined as graphite, then separated from impurities, then broken down into a single layer.
“At the time of my first experiments, I was disappointed because it’s really tough to grow diamonds when you’re forming graphitic materials. But once I realized what I had, I put the diamond research aside,” Dato says. “I realized we can make graphene easier than with breaking down graphite, and that, because of its properties, we could make something useful with it to address problems in the world.”
Having made his own big discovery after many failed experiments, Dato encourages his students to persevere. “The way I run my lab is to give students a goal and then let them figure it out,” he says. “That’s how I learned, and it helped me grow as a scientist. I love to teach, and I love the process of scientific discovery. It’s even better when your student experiences it.”
Students in Dato’s energy and nanomaterials lab at Harvey Mudd College agree. Chance Bisquera ’19 says he was having a tough time academically when the opportunity to participate in a materials engineering research project in Dato’s lab became available. “That was a turning point for me as a struggling Mudder,” he says. “I was looking for an extracurricular activity that I enjoyed and that allowed me to apply what I learned in the classroom to a project that can have an impact on society. My time spent thus far in lab has provided me with a renewed sense of confidence, helped me improve as a critical thinker and scientific explorer and has taught me some of the basic research skills that I will need should I choose to attend graduate school in the near future.”
“I wouldn’t trade one HMC student for three grad students,” Dato says. “They’re really passionate about what they do. Students in the Dato Lab are excited about taking ownership of their projects.”
Graphene Is a Guy’s Best Friend
“I remind myself of ‘Bubba’ from the movie Forrest Gump when I talk about the potential applications for graphene,” Dato says, referring to the character Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue, who spent his time thinking and talking about all the ways one can cook shrimp. “Car parts, airplane parts …” Dato says, laughing.
Indeed, there are a lot of ways graphene could be used in practical applications. However, using his current technique, Dato is only able to produce tens of milligrams of graphene per hour.
“The barrier to all the applications is being able to produce a lot of high quality graphene,” Dato says. “It’s still cheaper to mine graphite for use in pencils. But the mined graphite is full of other things. The lab stuff we make in our lab is pure carbon. So that’s the prime advantage; it’s much higher-quality graphene. The goal is to improve the production to make kilograms versus milligrams.”
After students modeled what happens inside the microwave plasma reactor, where ionized gas breaks apart ethanol to produce graphene, the next step was to build a new plasma box that’s cheaper and smaller than existing models, but they had to figure out how. Results came after a lot of trial and error.
“So many designs, so much frustration and failure,” Dato says, adding that as it’s all part of the process. “I failed so many times. Me figuring out how to make graphene out of ethanol was a failure because I failed to grow diamonds. You fail, you learn, you move on.” After several semesters of work by several students, a late-night text from one of them delivered good news. “Harry Fetsch ’20 sent me a video of the ignited plasma in a chamber,” Dato says. “He figured it out!”
In thinking about the many uses for graphene, Dato has focused on one area of research on its potential as part of composite materials that are stronger but more lightweight than existing products—think car or aircraft panels that can withstand more impact to improve safety and also weigh less, to improve fuel economy.
To develop a composite, Dato and students are experimenting with mixing graphene and epoxy. “We think it will outperform any other composite that’s been published so far,” Dato says.
When Nicole Subler ’17 was at Harvey Mudd (she’s now an engineer at Bolt Threads), she spent 10 weeks in the lab developing an epoxy/graphene composite specimen and then creating molds to reproduce it. Jacob Knego ’18 took the project from there, working to perfect the process of making the specimens. The results of their tests have indeed shown that graphene improves the strength, stiffness and ductility of the epoxy.
This year, Kevin Nakahara ’20 and Nathan Sunbury ’21 continue the next phase of the research, which is to determine why the graphene has the effect it does on the epoxy structure.
“The most interesting part of the research is seeing how such a simple step in adding nanofillers can have such a profound effect on the performance of the specimens,” Nakahara says. “Not only can you see the enhancement in the data but you get a sense of this during the testing process, which in itself is exciting due to the suspense created when we are breaking the specimens.”
Students in the Dato Lab are also investigating how graphene might be used as a medium for 3-D printing. “In particular, we are trying to determine if the inclusion of a certain carbon nanoparticle improves any of the material properties (ultimate tensile strength, ductility, elastic modulus, strain at break, toughness) of specimens printed from standard 3-D printing resin,” says Bisquera, who is beginning his second semester on the project.
Bisquera says working in the Dato Lab is challenging, academically fulfilling and fun. He’s also inspired to think about his future as an engineer. “I can see my research potentially having an impact on society,” he says. “As an engineer who greatly enjoys prototyping, design and building, I have always been fascinated by 3-D printers for their ability to transform a digital design into a physical reality. Ultimately, I can see the work done in this project as having an impact on the quality and durability of 3-D printed designs.”
For Dato, working at Harvey Mudd is fundamentally about his love of teaching, his passion for graphene research and his desire to, along with his students, tackle engineering’s grand challenges. By combining all three ideas, he hopes to form a collaboration between his students and an industry partner to learn if they can make current graphene composite applications better. “If we make cars and aircraft lighter, you have better fuel efficiency, less emission—the goal in the Dato Lab is always to make something to help the environment,” he says.
And the diamonds? “Diamonds can wait,” Dato says. “Let’s focus on this material that can make the world a better place.”
Prof. Nancy Lape: Innovative Engineering Educator
Nancy Lape, associate professor of engineering at Harvey Mudd College, has been awarded the William R. Kenan, Jr. Visiting Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University. The award is given to individuals “who have set standards for exceptional scholarship and distinguished teaching.”
Selected for demonstrated excellence in teaching and for her capacity to bring new ideas in undergraduate teaching to the campus, Lape will spend her 2018–2019 sabbatical year at Princeton. She’ll teach an undergraduate course and engage in other activities aimed at improving teaching at Princeton, such as workshops for faculty and graduate students, demonstration lectures and classroom visits.
“The William R. Kenan, Jr. Visiting Professorship for Distinguished Teaching is an exciting opportunity to teach and learn from other professors in another rich research environment,” says Lape, who adds that she’s also looking forward to exploring Princeton’s teaching and learning centers and hearing more about the university’s work on its sequence of integrated science, mathematics and engineering freshman courses and how this might inform potential revisions to Harvey Mudd’s Core Curriculum.
Lape joined the Department of Engineering at Harvey Mudd College in 2005 and serves as the director of the Patton and Claire Lewis Fellowship in Engineering Professional Practice. Her research focuses on energy-efficient composite gas separation membranes and chemical transport across human skin. She received a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. In 2009, she received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award.
Lape is interested in finding innovative approaches to engineering education. With fellow Harvey Mudd faculty Rachel Levy and Darryl Yong, she conducted a four-year controlled study of flipped classroom instruction at Harvey Mudd. Their work, which provides evidence-based recommendations to STEM educators, was publicized widely, including in the Los Angeles Times and in Slate.
Lape also co-authored an award-winning paper that describes the redesign of the College’s Engineering Systems course from the lecture model to a model that includes active learning (flipped classroom) tutorials and hands-on practicums. The paper “Integrating Theory and Hands-On Practice Using Underwater Robotics in a Multidisciplinary Introductory Engineering Course,” won second place in the First-Year Programs Division and first place for presentation in the same division at the 2017 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Lape and Department of Engineering colleagues Lori Bassman, Christopher Clark, Albert Dato, Angela Lee, Matthew Spencer and Erik Spjut, and Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness Laura Palucki Blake, collaborated on the paper, which includes results that show major increases in student learning and increased positive attitudes toward engineering.
Lape is a member of HMC’s Faculty Executive Committee (FEC), the FEC subcommittee on diversity, inclusion and equity, and the Core Review Planning Team, which helped lead an external review of the College’s Core Curriculum.
The William R. Kenan, Jr. Visiting Professorship for Distinguished Teaching was established as part of the Princeton’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1996. Lape’s colleague, Chris Clark, professor of engineering and associate department chair, held the William R. Kenan, Jr. Visiting Professorship for Distinguished Teaching before joining Harvey Mudd College in 2012.
Prof. Philip Cha: Exciting Vibrations, Inspiring Students
Before he became an engineering professor at Harvey Mudd, Philip Cha worked as a Senior Research Engineer at the Ford Motor Company Research Laboratory’s chassis systems department, where, among other things, he constructed mathematical models to simulate the behavior of anti-lock brakes. “I liked what I did, but this is so much more fun and gratifying,” Cha says of teaching. “When a student gets excited about a subject, it’s really fulfilling.”
At Mudd, Cha studies mechanical vibration. One of his research interests lies in seeking ways to minimize and suppress vibration on a structure to improve its lifespan and safety. His work with students, however, is all about expanding knowledge and developing novel ways to analyze vibration.
Cha, C.F. Bran & Company Fellow, is currently collaborating with a graduate student and his advisor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, studying vibration suppression. “The advisor was a student of mine when I taught at Tsinghua University in Beijing during my sabbatical from 2004 to 2005,” Cha says. “It’s so exciting to have a student become a professor with students of his own. I love to think back about what he was like as a student and to see him now as a teacher.” They’ve had some exciting results in their research collaboration, which Cha happily demonstrates through a computer animation of vibration of a harmonically excited plate. By enforcing nodes at various locations, they are able to mitigate vibration in specific regions of the plate. They published a paper on their research last year and have just submitted another one for review based on an extension of their previous work.
In his lectures at Harvey Mudd for his upper-level technical electives, Cha likes to share many of his research findings with his students. “I expose them to as much of my research as I can. I want them to be excited about mechanical vibration and structural dynamics,” he says. When something sparks a student’s interest, Cha asks if they want to collaborate on research in that area.
One such collaboration has been studying eigenvalue perturbation theory with Austin Shin ’18. “Many engineering problems involve a system of differential equations, which depend on many parameters in the system, such as different masses, spring stiffnesses and damping coefficients,” says Shin. “Solving an eigenvalue problem associated with the system reveals interesting characteristics about the dynamics of the system, but it can take a significant amount of time and computing power to do so, and if any of the parameters are changed, the entire problem must be solved again.” Cha and Shin are developing an efficient method that can quickly approximate the new system’s eigenvalues and eigenvectors.
“We use the eigenvalue perturbation method, which provides us with closed-form expressions containing simple matrix multiplication, and matrix multiplication can be done exceptionally quickly with software,” Shin says. “Working with Prof. Cha is great practice in doing research and being a part of academia. He has high expectations for the results and the work that you present and write. He’s very understanding and knows that as students, we can be very busy at times. And he’s great at communicating, easy to contact and believes in your ability to perform and deliver, which I find most helpful.”
Prof. David Money Harris: Aerial Altruism
When engineering professor David Money Harris’s family wants hamburgers for dinner, they like to go to one of two favorite California locations, the Beachside Cafe in Santa Barbara or Landings in Carlsbad. Both locations are quite a long drive away from Claremont, which is why they fly.
In the 20 years that Harris has held his pilot’s license, he’s flown for many reasons, in addition to a quest for good burgers—business travel, family vacations, bypassing Los Angeles traffic. Harris has also flown for another reason: volunteer work.
Fifteen years ago, Harris flew for AngelFlight, doing nonemergency medical transportation for people in need. “I took some kids and adults who lived in remote areas for cancer treatments in L.A.,” Harris says. “I also got to ferry an injured Iraq War vet to visit his family.” Recently Harris has resumed his practice of donating flights for a good cause, this time via LightHawk, a non-profit organization that supplies pilots, planes and flight time for conservation projects that benefit from the perspective of aerial views.
After seeing LightHawk’s advertisement in aviation magazines for many years, Harris met a representative from the organization at an event last year and signed up. Donating his time and the expenses of flying his plane, an A36 Bonanza, Harris flies passengers involved with various conservation organizations on missions related to their projects.
“LightHawk keeps a mission board, and I sign up for flights based on my availability, location and the suitability of my aircraft for the task,” Harris says.
His first mission, in June, was to assist the Heal the Bay organization by taking the California Fish and Game Commissioner to see how marine-protected areas off the coast of Palos Verdes and Catalina have contributed to the revitalization of the ecosystems there.
In October, Harris flew members of the Bay Foundation from Santa Monica Bay to Point Conception to examine marine-protected areas that do and do not allow fishing. Though similar to his previous flight, this one required extra precaution. “The trip was far enough off-shore that we had to wear life jackets,” Harris says.
Most recently, in December, Harris flew with the Surfrider Foundation to observe the impact of a king tide event, a regular occurrence that can help provide an idea of what a permanent rise in sea level might look like. “I carried a foundation official, a Carlsbad city councilwoman (who was a former pro surfer) and two KPBS reporters,” Harris says. “The 6.9-foot tides were up against the sea cliffs along most of the route between San Onofre and the Mexican border, with just a bit of the largest sand beaches showing.”
Not only does working with LightHawk allow Harris to fly for a good cause, it also has potential for being exciting and unusual. “I almost carried an endangered wolf across the country to a breeding program last year,” Harris says, “but the wolf is very sensitive and wouldn’t have done well if I got delayed by bad weather, so my plane wasn’t the right one for the task.”
Having flown marine-related flights so far, Harris, an avid hiker, looks forward to the chance to be involved with land conservation efforts as well. “I write hiking guidebooks,” he says, “so I have a strong personal interest in the health of our mountains and deserts.” Given his close proximity to several mountain ranges and deserts in Southern California, there’s a good possibility Harris will get that chance. In the meantime, he can always take the family out for burgers.
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.”