Saturday, May 12

Recap this semester at Cooper Union...

I have never been so busy in the past week as I have been this week. A number of terrific things have been happening, and I am so proud of the accomplishments of my students for their entire effort. Please, let me explain.

Cooper Union has a wonderful history of innovation and entrepreneurship in the areas of art, architecture and engineering. This week, the school celebrated the groundbreaking of its new Engineering Building that is to be completed in 18 months, in time for the 150th anniversary of the creation of Cooper Union. A lofty goal, but one that has magic in it for the future of New York and the tech community within it.

I have been an adjunct professor here for about two years and have been amazed at the students and their work, especially their ability to work themselves to the bone when faced with almost impossible tasks. This semester, I got to instruct in "systems" in Mechanical Engineering and "emerging software paradigms" or Web 2.0, for short. The two classes were very different in style and content, but the students were the heart of what Cooper is proud to show as their very best.

ESC161 - Systems Engineering, Mondays 6-9pm
In a former life, I was a robotist - working on a new robotic manipulator at Stanford, building a control system that would allow a mechanical arm to work with incredible speed and precision. I have always been fascinated with "systems" and how they work, and I remember fondly my control theory classes (yes, sounds kind of strange, I know) where were would determine the equations that would govern the operation of a system and then design a control/compensator to deliver the performance we desired.

In my class here at Cooper, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the mechanics of systems so that my Mechanical Engineering students could understand how the physical world could be modeled by mathematics and how, when they take Controls next semester, they would understand how it all "works". It was a tough first half of the semester, and the first test was a killer. But, I was impressed with the students resolve to understand the material after the test, and how we - yes, me - worked to figure out how to get everyone to understand the material. The second test, which I am in the midst of grading, was longer, but fairer (IMHO). But, the thing that impressed me (and infuriated me) was the simulations that the students accomplished. No, they were not that magical. But the extra effort that some of the students made was extremely impressive, and made me smile that they had gone that extra mile. And I wanted to say thanks to them.

ECE463 - Emerging Software Paradigms/Web 2.0 Paradigms
This class was borne out of the Red Hen Spectra project - where I had built a team of students who are working on a collaborative curation project for chemical spectra (yes, extremely esoteric) but discovered that programming done in schools is primarily about simple problem solving with one customer, the professor. For my class, I chose to come up with a different customer, the owners of problems that could be solved by using Web 2.0 paradigms (e.g. collaboration, mashups, fast applications). The class was brand-new, and 10 students took on the challenge to help me build the course.

The first half of the course was a survey about the concepts of Web 2.0 and migrated to how to do rapid application development and product requirements. Instead of being handed an assignment, the students had to find "customers", address their problem, and define their own deliverables due at certain dates. We spent a bunch of time on processes, but we also did an excursion on user interface and usability so that, instead of a simple, command-line interface, the goal was to build a full application, from database to user interface - complete with wireframes, use cases, feature specifications and a marketing requirements document (ala Garage.com).

The final grade was determined on their product (did it work as specified) and their presentation to a group of investors, entrepreneurs and other interested parties. As you can see on the two articles, the students did exceptionally well:

I was very impressed by what the students have put together in the very short timeframe. Each of the ideas could be marketable with some tweaks. The teams focused mainly on what the tool would do, not as much on revenue or go-to-market plans.

I could tell that a couple of the students were nervous. I think colleges and universities need to offer more classes and make public presentations so that students can gain confidence in this area. This becomes more important as everyone wants to create the next Google. Pitching to a VC or other parties can be a make or break and these forced presentation opportunities are critical.

and from CNET,
This afternoon, I went over to NYC's Cooper Union to sit in on the final project presentations for the Web 2.0 Paradigms class, a hands-on course in the school's electrical engineering department taught by adjunct professor Sanford Dickert. In this course, the students--who were required to have software development experience--created their own Web applications from start to (very beta) launch, with a focus on the end user experience and what kinds of consumers would use such a service.

...

But who knows? These are projects that were conceived and launched in a span of six to eight weeks. The students clearly all knew what they were doing, development-wise. If they continue what they started, some of these could turn into interesting pieces of webware.

Caroline McCarthy, CNET: Webware, "Web 2.0 Gets Schooled"

When you get a chance to see your efforts turn out in such a way, all I have to say is thanks to all of these students for their hard-work and dedication. They did an incredible job and deserve the kudos they got in both of these articles.

Now, I have to finish grading these exams (yikes!) and get the scores in. Red Hen is still moving forward (we spent Friday cleaning the lab from top to bottom) and I am only now getting a chance to reply to emails and to put up this post.

Thanks to Caroline, Allen, all of our visitors on Wednesday and I wanted to make a special thanks to Profs. Fred Fontaine and Carl Sable who helped me put the Emerging Software Paradigms course together and Prof. Stan Wei for giving me the opportunity to teach the Systems Engineering course.

See ya after the summer. And keep an eye out for Red Hen Spectra.

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