Shaping the high-tech future
Research program draws undergraduate students from across the nation
by O.K. Carter
While her PowerPoint presentation zips through complex computations, schematics and performance graphics, electrical engineering student Linsy Cook sticks to the basics.
"With energy deregulation, electric power providers go on and off line with frequency," she explains to a classroom of her peers, the laser pointer she's holding glowing red on a screen projection of an electric filter design.
"A large part of the reason I chose graduate studies was that I was able to go to UTA and participate in this sort of program. It was invigorating to work so closely with such amiable professors."
-Space Shuttle engineer Phillippia Simmons
"Meanwhile, power consumers crank up, then down, then up and again down. These sags and swells can cause damage to equipment, as well as down time."
The changes are sometimes subtle, sometimes not. The trick is to detect and mitigate flow problems in microseconds. Fix the delayed detection, and you become a hero in the world of electronics technology.
Schematics have been translated to a lengthy Euclidian formula. Like all science, electronics eventually ends up rooted in mathematics. Truth or consequences in numbers. These exceptional students nod appreciatively. They're all participants in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, hosted by the University and supported since 1991 by the National Science Foundation.
Although REU continues year 'round at UTA, the summer program is also open to students from other universities, mostly computer science and engineering and electrical engineering majors, with a limited number of physics majors.
NSF has provided $924 million in REU support in electrical engineering alone, helping to fund the research of more than 200 students.
Though it's undergraduate work, the research is cutting edge. Cook, for instance, may well be on her way to that hero status. Early testing of her electronic filter shows promise of a 10 percent increase in detection efficiency over existing models. The finding will no doubt prove career helpful after she graduates this school year.
Following Cook, other students make their presentations-solar cells, micro engines, wireless sensors, artificial lenses-the stuff of a high-tech future.
"When you put so many bright kids together, a kind of creative synergy develops," says Saibun Tjuatja, an associate professor who runs the electrical engineering component of REU. "Some remarkable research occurs."
After students are matched with a professor in the appropriate specialties, they then focus on practical research that may range from advanced electron devices and electro-optics to crystalline structures for nanotechnology, energy systems and robotics. They also visit and sometimes collaborate with high-tech companies, including National Semiconductor, Bell Helicopter, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, Nortel Networks, Nokia, Texas Instruments and Verizon.
In any semester, a dozen or more REU students may be teamed with a like number of professors. "Individual faculty-student advising and mentoring are an absolutely crucial component of REU," Dr. Tjuatja points out.
"We also insist on developing presentation skills. It's not enough to have good ideas. The ability to communicate complex concepts in understandable ways is critical."
Emphasis is placed on some of the University's own projects. Computer science and engineering REU students this summer expanded on research related to the soon-to-be-built MavHome, a computerized house capable of extreme task automation. The "smart home" will adapt to the needs and habits of its residents, automatically adjusting temperatures, recording TV programs, turning off lights when someone leaves a room and the like.
"Much of the research, programming and simulation exercises will be conducted by REU students," says Manfred Huber, an associate professor who oversees REU participation in computer science and engineering.
UTA is at the forefront of such technology, which is expected to develop into a multibillion-dollar industry.
To the layman, much of the research sounds esoteric, but it often boils down to practical applications of immediate interest to the commercial sector. Electrical engineering senior Nicole Campbell is studying a type of amplifier used in electronic devices like cellular phones and headphones. The research is being done with support from both the National Science Foundation and National Semiconductor.
"The problem is that the temperature of an amplifier tends to increase because of the electric current running through it,"Campbell says. "Too much heat results in adverse changes in performance quality, sometimes dramatic changes."
Campbell has focused on problems associated with what's called a 741 amplifier circuit. "We've added schemes that compensate for the increased temperature problems," she says. "It's a new design."
Once the design is completed, it will be turned over to National Semiconductor, which will fabricate the circuit. "They'll also test it, tell us what they like or don't like about its performance and recommend what they'd like to see in improvements," Campbell says.
The goal? "What we want to do is contribute to the design of the next generation of this kind of high-speed amplifier."
As might be predicted, many students who have participated in REU find the experience extremely valuable in their careers.
Phillippia Simmons, a 1994 REU student, is now an aerospace engineer for United Space Alliance, NASA's prime contractor for the Space Shuttle. She develops machine technology that mimics human function-neural networks in artificial environments. She's part of a team that supports coordination between the United States and its partners on the International Space Station.
"A large part of the reason I chose graduate studies was that I was able to go to UTA and participate in this sort of program," she says. "And aside from the professional benefits, I also value the personal rewards. It was invigorating to work so closely with such amiable professors."
Those kind of remembrances will no doubt be repeated many times as
today's REU students continue to shape tomorrow's technology.