John Cohn: ECE Alumnus, IBM Fellow & Role Model

 Supercharging the Next Generation

August 13, 2007

He's captured headlines in USA Today and EETimes, taking his "Jolts and Volts" science and technology demonstrations to hundreds of schools around the nation, Walt Disney World, and the New York Hall of Science. He's been called "IBM's own Einstein" and for 15 years has enjoyed playing a mad scientist during his show, making engineering fun for nearly 30,000 kids.

ECE alumnus John Cohn (Ph.D. 1991) is Chief Scientist of design automation in the IBM Systems and Technology Group in Burlington, Vermont. Last spring, he was named an IBM Fellow, joining the prestigious circle that has received the company's highest technical honor. There have only been 193 IBM Fellows in the past 43 years, including 62 active Fellows in a company of nearly 300,000 employees. Cohn was recognized as IBM's premier technical leader in electronic design automation (EDA) technology and for innovation in the design of microprocessors, system-on-a-chip solutions, and technology enablement services.

"His accomplishments have shortened development cycles, improved efficiency, and increased client satisfaction," IBM stated in his fellowship award citation. "In addition, Dr. Cohn is a true IBM role model for driving technical vitality across the corporation and passionately reaching out to the future technical leaders across the globe through his education outreach efforts."

Cohn devotes about two hours to education outreach each week, as part of IBM's On Demand Community (ODC), which encourages IBM employees and retirees around the world to volunteer at nonprofit community organizations and schools, and provides information, support, and resources, including teaching aids such as Lego Robotics. He has traveled around the U.S. and internationally to places such as China, India, and Mexico for technical education outreach programs for IBM employees. Cohn's trips inspired him to recommend the company return to Bangalore to reach out to the city's middle school students. Today, IBM is working on a new initiative for youngsters in rural south India, a project that would be scalable for similar regions in less developed nations.In his 25 years of work for IBM, Cohn has visited nearly 40 countries.

In 2003, he was elected an IEEE Fellow for contributions to the development of computer-aided design (CAD) tools and design methodology for high-performance custom integrated circuits. Cohn's interest in EDA grew from the intersection of two of his favorite work areas: programming and circuits, and his inventions have earned approximately 50 patents. He has written four books on design automation, and his former faculty advisor, Rob Rutenbar, Jatras Professor of ECE, has co-authored three of them, as well as a chapter in a recent book on design automation, published by CRC Press.

Cohn earned his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon with an IBM Resident Study Fellowship. While studying at the university, he worked for the College of Fine Arts as a technician in the Studio for Creative Inquiry, creating high-tech conceptual art.

Rutenbar was impressed by his student's interdisciplinary ties: "Not only was John one of the most creative students I've ever had, he was also the most connected to the campus," he recalled. "We'd be walking down the cut, I'd turn my head for a second, and suddenly John is being buttonholed by the Dean of Fine Arts about some upcoming exhibition. It's just amazing how easily John moves among the worlds of basic science, of technology, of education, even art and music."

Jolts and Volts

While many fathers bond with their sons through sports, Cohn found a connection with his three sons through science. When the boys were in elementary school, he and his wife, Diane, who is also trained in EE, designed an after-school science program, which they offered in a number of schools over several years.

Cohn has also taught high school and elementary school part-time. He occasionally ran summer science seminars, and found that his sons enjoyed seeing the wacky inventions and explosions he created in their schools.

"I started doing it because my own kids thought it was cool," remembered Cohn. "It's so much fun to share something when you're passionate about it. You get so much more out of it than what you put into it. You feel good about it. It's good for the company, the industry, and the field to get people interested in math, science, and technology."

Word-of-mouth about his show snowballed, and soon he was invited to more schools and created "Jolts and Volts," a fast-paced, hour-long lesson on electricity. He makes his entrance by zooming into the classroom in a robot made of an old wheelchair motor, a gift from a former graduate school classmate, Larry Pileggi, who is now the Tanoto Professor of ECE at Carnegie Mellon. Wearing a tie-dyed lab coat and sneakers, Cohn entertains while he educates, even letting the children ride around in the robot cart.

"I'm trying to get across the utter coolness of electricity and how you can experience it with all your senses-sight, sound, touch, smell, even taste. We talk about the scale of electricity, in terms of voltage, and we do really goofy, outrageous experiments," he explained.

He demonstrates a simple concept at each point along the scale. At a microvolt, he plays a theremin, an instrument that uses the body's capacitance to change its pitch and volume, to reveal that invisible amounts of electricity can make beautiful music. Then, he hooks one student up to an EKG and a musical instrument so the audience can hear their heartbeat, and has another sample the funky taste of a nine volt battery after it has zapped a pickle. [Note to readers: do not try this at home.]

Next, Cohn lights another pickle up with 100 volts, fires Rice Krispies across the room through an indoor cannon run on 1,000 volts, and produces 10,000 volts of lightning climbing up the poles of a Jacob's ladder. Afterward, he makes a pupil's hair stand on end with a 100,000 volt Van de Graaff generator that scatters more Rice Krispies. The height of the presentation arrives when Cohn powers his homemade Tesla coils with a million volts, generating a three foot spark that jumps to his hand. At the end of the performance, Cohn drives away on his robot.

Inventors Like You

Cohn also offers another assembly in his repertoire, similar in format to "Jolts and Volts," but suited for the stage. "Inventors Like You" has run numerous times at the New York Hall of Science and Walt Disney World, and is meant to break stereotypes about who can be an inventor.

"I'm trying to get people to turn on that switch in their brain that says that they're an inventor, and that inventors are not just old, dead, white guys," Cohn said. "I usually team up with a woman and we talk about an inventor, his or her invention, and then do a really outrageous demo." He most enjoys reaching out to youngsters who are not already interested in engineering, not necessarily to point them toward technical careers, but to give them an appreciation for the discipline. "It's very fun to reach out to somebody who's got the wrong preconceptions about their abilities or their interests in science and math, and change that a little bit. I really like to open the door back up," he added.

For one demonstration, Cohn uses a big vacuum cannon to fire a ping pong ball through several pizza boxes and then onto his chest, which is protected by a Kevlar vest. The vacuum cannon illustrates a concept pioneered by Alfred Beach, who invented the pneumatic subway, which moved a subway car through a tunnel by sucking the air through and making a vacuum. Kevlar was invented by a woman, Carnegie Mellon alumna Stephanie Kwolek. During the presentation, the children are squirted by a Super Soaker, created by an African American, Lonnie Johnson.

"I always come back from that totally recharged. It's been great. And it's also been a great way of meeting people," Cohn accounted. "I can't go anywhere without running into a kid whose class I've been to, so it's a cool connection with the community. I really like when a grown man or woman will come up to me and tell me my show was one of the things that got them into engineering. ...That is the coolest thing."

Cohn built a laboratory to house his inventions (and his wife's yoga studio), next to his home, a 19th century schoolhouse. His latest invention is a robot to help him carry materials to schools, built from another old wheelchair given to him by Larry Pileggi.

For three years, Cohn served on the science education standards committee for the state of Vermont. He taught VLSI system design in the late 1990s at the University of Vermont, where he remains an adjunct professor of electrical engineering. He is also an undergraduate alumnus of MIT and the education outreach coordinator for Vermont's own MIT (VoMIT) club.

Gaming for the Future

Cohn's current job enables the next generation servers and game processors for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii.

"I'm working on something that kids can relate to," reported Cohn. "It's a great way to get them linked into science education, because everybody loves games and taking them apart works on so many different layers, including hardware, circuit design architecture, software, and game creation itself." He sees tremendous potential in gaming, both as a way to attract our youth to technical careers, and as an area to watch for accelerating growth in semi-conductor development.

"The intersection of gaming and visualization and the way that we look at large information and interaction intensive technology is huge. Gaming has been an incredible driver of technology and that's what I'm most juiced about," Cohn revealed, explaining that progress in the silicon industry may be propelled by the need to process the immense amount of information produced by visual interfaces and high-interaction games. "The data infrastructure has gotten so fast, and there are cool models for user interaction that are driven by gaming."

Business will increase the demand for high-end microelectronics with more functions, borrowing from the gaming industry for faster and better ways to experience data and communicate on the enterprise level, Cohn said. "I think the next wave is going to be as big as the Internet revolution. ...The way that people and enterprises talk to each other and the way you experience data and work with other people is just going to be fundamentally different," he surmised.

Cohn follows Carnegie Mellon's research initiatives and is particularly excited about the work in analog circuits conducted by ECE faculty members Larry Pileggi, Rick Carley, and Rob Rutenbar. He credits Carnegie Mellon researchers as being on the forefront of overcoming the challenges at the end of scaling, in spite of daunting demands: "We have to start dramatically improving the efficiency of design because even though technology performance scaling is slowing down, the amount of information we need to fit on a chip is not slowing down," he said, continuing, "I think what Carnegie Mellon is doing in design for manufacturability and CAD is absolutely going to be key to that, because we need to figure out some way of automating the process. What I'm most excited about for CAD is that multiple generations of performance scaling are rolling off and putting pressure on the design side to pick up the slack, because there is so much need for improvement."

Whether Cohn is improving circuit design, sparking a child's interest in engineering through an electrifying demonstration, or developing the technology that powers the next hit game, his innovations continue to reach people around the world. With one hand in industry, the other in academia, and his heart invested in educating our youth, this ECE alumnus is leading the way to supercharge the next generation.

Sharing What You've Learned

"Whatever you're interested in, there's somebody out there who would love to know about it and a child who would love to see you do it, especially if you can make it relevant and fun," encourages Cohn. "They really appreciate the kind of creative component that you can bring in, and there's a need for everything, whether you're a mathematician or a software person."

"It's so much fun to share what you learn and there's no better way to cement it in your own brain than to teach somebody," Cohn emphasized. "It makes you feel good and it's good for your technical vitality. A really good engineer can get other people excited about their ideas. Working with kids is a natural way of building that, because you have to be engaging, enthusiastic, and clear if you're talking to kids."

He urges youngsters who are interested in electrical and computer engineering to think of themselves as inventors, and to nurture their creative side, as well as their technical acumen.

"Turn on the 'I am an inventor' bit in your brain. ...Work on your electrodynamics and math skills, but don't forget to also work on your communication, interpersonal, and writing skills, because the intersection of those things is the way really creative things come into the world," Cohn said.

Each year, Carnegie Mellon faculty and students help with National Engineer's Week, held in February during the week of George Washington's birthday. Engineers who work in industry may be able to contribute through their employer, and may also have other opportunities available to them through their companies.

Another way to get started in outreach is through national professional societies, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

Faculty, staff, and students at Carnegie Mellon who are interested in sharing their knowledge and skills with others in Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond can also select from more than 75 university-wide programs aimed at K-12 students and teachers through the Leonard Gelfand Center for Service Learning and Outreach on campus.

In recent years, ECE faculty and students have led and aided in courses for boy scouts offered through Alpha Phi Omega (APhiO) service fraternity, Engineering Your Future (EYF) summer workshops organized by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) for eighth to twelfth graders, and events aimed at high school juniors and seniors, including SWE High School Days, Carnegie Mellon Advanced Placement Early Admission (APEA) programs, as well as the university's Summer Academy for Mathematics and Science (SAMS).

For information on these programs, contact Judith Hallinen, Gelfand Center Director, at jh4p at or (412) 268-1498.

Source: Currents Newsletter, Spring 2007

John Cohn: ECE Alumnus, IBM Fellow & Role Model. Photo by

Just like this girl, multiple generations of kids have been thrilled the first time they put their hands on Van de Graaff generator at the local science center. Cohn brings the excitement of electricity right to the classroom. Photo by Tom Way/IBM Corp.

Cohn shows the class a robotic dog. Photo by Tom Way/IBM Corp.


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