Steering Toward Engineering: High School Scholars Visit ECE


October 9, 2003

When Brother Ernest Miller read the Pittsburgh Post Gazettes articles on the smart car from the GM Research Laboratory (GM CRL) at CMU, he wanted his students at Central Catholic High School to have a front-seat view of the excitement. So, he set the wheels in motion for the sophomores he directs in the David S. Baginski FSC Scholars Program to tour the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Driven by the success of their first visit last December, Brother Ernest returned this fall with twenty five new pupils in his sophomore colloquium, themed In Search of Knowledge: Pittsburgh and Beyond.

Introducing the group to ECE, Ed Schlesinger, Professor and Associate Head of ECE and Co-Director of the GM CRL, taught the assembly about the labs work to engineer vehicles to act as our companions, providing us with information and entertainment and making our rides safer. As an example, the GM CRL team found by displaying a simple scrolling route instead of a detailed map, a smart car could keep a driver from diverting their eyes from the road for three extra seconds. The class calculated in these few moments an automobile traveling at 30 miles per hour would cover half of the distance of a football field. Their results showed the time saved by engineering design could avert the risk of an accident.

Schlesinger relished the chance to share the applications of engineering with them before college: While science, math, history, and so on, are subjects they develop a familiarity with in high school, most students don't have an opportunity to become acquainted with engineering.

Student Andy Noel enjoyed learning about all of the technologies that will be in cars. He was intrigued to hear about cameras that follow a persons gaze to start or stop electronics, such as turning on a light by glancing at it.

Next, Jim Bain, Associate Professor of ECE, illustrated the concept of data storage, guiding the scholars to measure the amount of information a disk can hold. Stressing a major challenge of data storage is miniaturization, he introduced the micron as a unit of measurement; a strand of human hair is between 50 to 100 microns. As our world-wide storage capacity increases, it will be possible to store the entire Library of Congress on your desktop, Schlesinger noted. The FBI could also access fingerprint databases while on the move.

The real limit is our imagination- not the technology, Bain said.

Leading them on a tour of the cleanroom, Bain displayed the Data Storage Systems Center (DSSC) facilities used to train our graduate students for work with semiconductor devices, integrated optics, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

Central Catholics Marc Roberge was encouraged to discover how engineering makes our lives easier. His classmates asked Schlesinger and Bain questions on topics ranging from computer network security, information networking and systems, formal verification of software, the diversity of communication systems, and even artificial intelligence.

"It is extremely gratifying to work with these students, and have them be so engaged, animated and willing to share their thoughts, accounted Bain. I also like the idea of engaging the wider community around CMU and getting the word out about the great stuff we do here," he added.

Both Schlesinger and Bain urged the sophomores to think about the broader implications of new systems, a theme echoed by their curriculum: We want our students to see the interdisciplinary dimensions of the subjects being presented, Brother Ernest explained. Following the field trip, they each wrote a journal entry examining the ethical implications of the technology. In upcoming months, the Baginski Scholars are continuing on the fast lane; they are planning on visiting more departments at Carnegie Mellon, including civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, and humanities and social sciences.

Associate Professor of ECE Jim Bain shows the students the Clean Room.

Related People:

James Bain

T.E. Schlesinger

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