Research Tools

Secret Tools of the Engineering Grad Student, Part 1: Desktop Search

Each engineering specialty makes use of certain software packages. For instance, in my area of automatic controls, just about everyone uses Matlab; those studying other disciplines make use of other topic-specific packages. However, certain tools (software and otherwise) will prove beneficial to just about any engineering grad student who must carry out research and produce a dissertation at the conclusion of their studies. However, these tools are rarely mentioned as key technologies for surviving as an engineering grad student. Over the next several posts, I will identify some tools that I had to discover on my own as I marched toward a PhD degree. Today’s category is desktop search.

A stack of papers

You will undoubtedly collect a lot of information on your computer as a grad student. This will include papers, notes, programs, and presentations. Regardless of the software you use to produce or store such information, a good search program will help you quickly access data when you need it. During the course of my research, I have stored thousands of documents in various file formats. Often times I can remember an author’s name, or a keyword, but cannot recall which document contains a particular quote or data item. A search program allows you to quickly identify the information you need, regardless of where it is located on your computer’s hard drive.

An admitted Luddite, I still use Windows XP as my operating system, so I can’t speak to whether Linux, Mac, Vista, or Windows7 users require an external search program. I’ve had good luck with X1 Search, which I started using back in 2004, when this program was named Yahoo! Desktop Search. Then, in 2006, the association with Yahoo! was terminated, but a free version of X1 remained available as X1 Client. Sadly, the last free version (5.6.3, Build 3453) is becoming difficult to find on the web anymore. Although X1 is no longer free, there are other free options in the desktop search category that should work just as well. Regardless of which desktop search program works best for your situation, you will save significant amounts of time by being able to rapidly search through your research documents and retrieve key bits of data.

Although I wasn’t surprised at my need to search journal articles, I have been amazed at how often I need to go back to find a section of software code that I had previously written. Over the course of the past several years, I’ve created thousands of lines of Matlab code, and I occasionally realize that I’m starting to rewrite an algorithm that I’ve already sorted out. So I open up my desktop search program, limit my search to Matlab files, and start typing in relevant keywords. I’m almost always guaranteed to find the needed code within a few minutes. If you’re an engineering grad student, you’ll likely get good use out of a desktop search client.

Instruction Methods

Bidirectional Translation

Happened to stumble across Mango Languages last night. It seems to be a nicely constructed site for language instruction. Once upon a time I worked for a firm headquartered in Germany, and had taken some company-sponsored language lessons, so I poked around in the first-level German module. One of the things I noticed right away was that translation was required in both directions. First, I was asked to translate from English to German. Then, after practicing a phrase, I was asked to translate from German back to English. This was easy for the first couple of phrases, but became increasingly difficult as I had to juggle more and more words in my head. I gave up halfway through the lesson as it was getting late, and my head was starting to hurt. However, someone fluent in both languages has obviously mastered the translation going in either direction.

All engineers deal at some level with the language of their particular engineering specialty, as well as the language of mathematics. Fluency in math provides magnificent tools for creating and analyzing new engineering methods. However, my recent experience as a graduate student (as well as two decades as a design engineer) leads me to believe that the emphasis is too heavily focused on the making the translation from physical reality into the language of mathematics. Once the math domain has been entered, there is little effort to move back into the physical domain. This seems to me a great oversight, as I consider engineers to be those who function primarily in the physical realm, rather than the mathematical domain. I love the beauty of mathematics, but I fear that the current generation of engineers may lack much substantive understanding of how to convert mathematical results into an enhanced understanding of physical realities. Many of my classmates fail to “see” how a problem solution relates to any real-world situation.

On the other hand, I frequently find myself struggling for hours trying to make the connection between a solution and its physical meaning. Often times the available textbooks and reference materials made it sound as though this connection should be immediately clear to the reader. It drives me crazy when technical material makes no concession for those of us who are not yet be completely fluent in the “language.” Since learning is a lifelong process, all of us should be constantly entering domains to which we have not been previously exposed. While the use of a particular method or technique may be plain-as-day to its creator, it’s often not nearly so obvious to those of us struggling to acquire an understanding of the new concept. So I suppose this post should serve as a reminder for myself to keep looking for better ways to describe technical concepts in a manner that novices can comprehend, and that experts will still find insightful. I’m not sure that it can be done at the same time, or via the same communication method, but surely there has to be a better way.

Instruction Methods

Narrative and Storytelling

While skimming through a year-old post over at edtechpost, I noticed the following reflection:

So I will forgive you if you ignore me from here on out as a perennial dimwit when I tell you that it took me this long to ‘get’ how crucial narrative and storytelling are to everything we are doing, be it learning online, connecting, weaving one’s online presence, blogging…

What really caught my eye was the phrase “narrative and storytelling.” Why are these factors not more frequently incorporated into the teaching of technical issues? While sitting through long lectures that cover intricate mathematical development, I often long to hear more about the context in which the methodology was developed.

  • What problem drove the development of a new approach? These equations don’t just drop out of the heavens! Aspiring engineers need to understand that effective problem solving is within their grasp; that “correct” solutions are not just found in dusty old reference texts. Novel methods are driven by persistence and hard work—this reality is rarely emphasized.
  • How long did it take to create, prove, and document the approach? It’s easy to get frustrated when the development of a new method hits repeated roadblocks. There needs to be some understanding of the hundreds (or thousands) of hours that are often spent in developing a new solution. Even though a proof can be sketched out in two minutes, the path from problem statement to solution is usually not intuitively obvious.
  • Finally, a pet peeve of mine: All contributions are made by real people with real lives, not mystical figures existing beyond the earthly realm. Even if there is no time for biographical sketches of these individuals, what is the correct pronunciation of their names? Most engineers finally figure out that “Euler” is “oy-ler,” not “you-ler.” However, I’ve sat through many lectures where a theorem author is identified on the overhead slide, but their name is never mentioned aloud. And rarely have I heard any emphasis on correct pronunciation. This small detail seems central to allowing engineers to properly communicate with others in the language of mathematics, as well as providing some sense of human involvement. By the way, I often refer to the Mathematics Pronunciation Guide. How else would I learn that “Stieltjes” is pronounced “steel-tyuhs?”

Having taught college courses many moons ago, I am well aware that trying to incorporate contextual material into lectures means even more work for already overstretched professors or lecturers. However, I’ve come to the decision that it’s better to master a few topics than to be aware of many. A good story makes any topic easier to remember, and also promotes a richer understanding of the material.

Instruction Methods

A Mother Lode of Engineering Education Information

Happened across Dr. Richard Felder’s website today. Wow! What a treasure trove of information. It’s going to take me a while to digest this information, but I’m thrilled to see that the research exists. You can view an hour-long presentation Dr. Felder recently made at Penn State University, titled “Engineering Education in Five Years (or sooner).” Too bad we can’t see his slides most of the time, but an interesting talk nonetheless. My take away quote: “The power of the interactive tutorial is huge.”

Thanks to Teaching College Math for leading me to Prof. Felder’s site!

Engineering Curriculum

A Narrower Focus

As I enjoyed lunch with a friend today, he described a teenager that he has been counseling. The young man that my friend has been advising wants to be engineer. When asked why, the teen replied that he wants “to build things.” That’s certainly why I wanted to be an engineer. It’s also why I was so frustrated in my first two years of college. I didn’t understand what possible connection all of the math and physics I was “learning” had to do with making things. My father ran a machine shop, so I knew what making things looked like. It usually didn’t involve a lot of calculus. In fact, I worked in industry as an engineer for twenty years without ever having to solve a single integral.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t need to understand math and physics. On many occasions I approximated an integral using Riemann sums, because I understood the integration concept. However, the connection between my engineering studies and the shop floor certainly escaped me for my first couple of years in school. I know many talented young people who got frustrated with engineering and quit because they couldn’t see the relevance of the engineering curriculum. Their youthful passions “to build things” were quashed for a lack of clear and direct communication about what engineers do and how they complete their assigned duties.

As I think about the future of engineering education, it’s easy to get caught up in interesting conversations about college costs, classroom technologies, and alternative certification. However, the problem I need to focus on is that of curriculum relevance. What does an engineer need to know in order to go “make things?” How do you make that knowledge relevant to an eighteen year old student? What are the key points that every engineer should remember and understand a decade after graduation? All in all, I need to narrow my focus and concentrate on these issues.

Oh yeah, it wouldn’t hurt to get my dissertation finished, either.