The Aesthetics of Design(ing an new course)

This semester I am teaching a new course, the Aesthetics of Design. It is a mashup of industrial design, studio art and engineering projects courses. Grad and undergrad students from our Mechanical Engineering program, plus students from TAM and other programs will design and build artifacts with an aesthetic component, possibly useless things for art’s sake. Not your typical functional time-and-money oriented engineering project course, and not a traditional ‘industrial design’ product-oriented course either.

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Collected Fluid Artists

I’ve been collecting examples of work from fine artists who use fluid mechanics as a significant part of their media. Currently this collection is posted on as Flow Visualization on Scoop.it, but perhaps I will transition the collection to be part of my blog here. Meanwhile, here is a recent example:

Suggestions for artists to add are welcome.

Am I Back? Oh Yes!

Office Hours Fall 2015

Pretty much everybody I run into asks me “so, are you back yet?” meaning am I back to teaching. Based on prior experience, I expect them to continue asking this question in some form for the next seven years. I think it reflects a wistfulness on their part; they wish they were on sabbatical too, whether they are academics or not. Knowing how irritating this question gets over time, when I run into a colleague I haven’t seen in a while I ask instead “you’re not on sabbatical now, are you?”, as if that phrasing is really any different. I’m eternally wistful too.

This semester I’m teaching two courses, undergraduate Fluids and my favorite, Flow Visualization. Both are MWF, so it feels like I’m always preparing for one or the other, even though I’ve taught both courses 10 times. Fluids has 85 students in it, but really I have 170 students, because I’ve joined forces with Peter Mitrano (a Flow Vis alum) who is teaching the other section. We are sharing homeworks and exams, so it’s like teaching a big course with a co-instructor, although we have separate lectures. Flow Vis has 45 students or so, as usual. This means I have contact with over 200 students, who all would like me to know their names. Oy.

I’ve tried to block out Thursday as my day for uninterrupted work, since all of my PhD students are hoping to graduate this term. I thought there were 3, but I just heard from an ABD (all but dissertation) student from a few years ago who now wants to finish. That is one big pile of theses.

Wish me luck.

PS, I’ve changed the hosting of this blog from WordPress to Dreamhost, so please resubscribe if you want to stay connected.

Across the World and Back

It feels like both no time and forever. I’ve been traveling almost nonstop for four months, and now I’m finally home. It was amazing, exciting, fun, sometimes uncomfortable, endlessly fascinating, useful, productive and indulgent. I don’t want to go anywhere for a long time and yet I would go again in a heartbeat.

Most of it was cities. Not my first choice for travel destinations; I’d prefer villages and mountains, but this was mostly a work trip, so cities it was.

Short trips to Chicago, Berkeley, then overseas to Athens, Volos, Thessaloniki, Plovdiv, Varna, Bucharest, Stockholm, Skovde, Linkoping/Norkoping, Lund, Bremen, Leiden, Munster, Freiburg,  Milan, Moneglia, Florence, Prato, Heraklion, back Athens, then home briefly. Then Seattle, Berkeley, and a final leisurely drive to Mendocino and back for Balkan camp. I gave my cardiac seminar seven times formally, and three times informally. My ‘Aesthetics in Flow Vis’ I gave five times.

I am so grateful to all my hosts, most of whom I had never met in person before. I got such valuable feedback on our work. I was able to learn so much about the stellar work all these new colleagues are doing. I was able to visit their workspaces, meet all their students and postdocs, and see such a range of ways of approaching this research/teaching enterprise we are all engaged in. This kind of visit was so value-added compared to presenting at a conference that I plan many more in the future.

One of my preconceptions that was blown was the way that low university tuitions are managed in Europe. Each program has thousands of qualified students in the first year. They really do have ‘weed-out’ courses, and they accept the impact this has on their demographics (in terms underrepresented minorities) as a given. At the same time the faculty are just as committed (or not) to excellence in teaching as we are here at home.

I visited both thriving and struggling research groups. One common refrain was that there are very limited opportunities for mid-career researchers, so many of them seek (and find, oddly enough) opportunities abroad. This churn may provide good cross-fertilization of research, but it takes quite a toll on the families involved.

So now I’m home. My up-close view of the grass on the other side of the fence revealed that it is green, but no greener than here. My to-do list is even longer than when I started. It turned out that manipulating a cursor on a laptop screen is tough on any train. I still have a lot of processing to do on what I learned, as well as thank-yous to write and connections to follow up on. My students were all productive while I was gone, so I have a lot of their work to review. I’m not complaining! Onward!

Working the travel mix

For most of my career, I’ve separated travel for work from travel for leisure/pleasure. Maybe it was emotional laziness: it’s hard to switch gears, and leisure time seemed soooo precious that I didn’t want to contaminate it. And now that I’m halfway through our two-month European loop, yes, it’s hard, but it’s led to all sorts of authentic experiences we would not have had any other way. I’m loving it.

In the past, work travel meant somewhat stressful conferences, punctuated by brief exchanges with colleagues in cities that were often charm-challenged. If held in beautiful locations, nobody wanted to actually attend the sessions. I’d rather just go somewhere nice and enjoy it.

This trip is different. We are visiting people where they live. We get into town on the train, figure out public transport to get to our AirBnB or hotel, meet whoever is renting the space to us, and get recommendations for neighborhood eateries and shops. The next day I go to my host colleague’s office, see their work space, meet their students, maybe give a seminar. I get to really learn about what they are doing, their philosophies and approaches. I get very constructive feedback on my work. So much more valuable than what happens at a conference!

After, we spend another night or two or six in the area. We’ve done some touristy stuff, but not a lot. Our places usually have kitchens, so we’ll go to the grocery store and try to figure out what to get. Yay for the Google Translate app! Sometimes we get to meet up with Boulder or Balkan camp connections in these towns, and my colleague Einar Heiberg generously invited us to a dinner party at his home in Lund.

The hard part has been deciding what to do with unscheduled time: work vs exercise vs explore vs curate gigs of photos. Take the opportunity to sample a local European delight or finish that conference paper? Hmm. Go to the beach at Den Haag, or finish this post? In this case, I went to the beach. It was freezing, with quivering foam. Call it flow vis.

I’m so grateful for the privilege to have these choices!

Aesthetics and Emotional Engagement: Why it Matters to Our Students, Why it Matters to Our Professions

Kate Goodman and I have proposed a special session for the 2015 Frontiers in Education conference. Our goals are

  • To foster conversation and document ideas about how the aesthetic qualities of engineering topics can be used to deliberately draw the emotional engagement of students.
  • To gauge how the FIE community currently views the aesthetics of engineering, and brainstorm new visions for how aesthetics could be used to improve recruitment and retention of a diverse student population as well as lead to innovative methods for the teaching and learning of core engineering content.
  • To explore the feasibility of viewing aesthetics-driven emotional engagement as a necessity and not an ancillary benefit in course design.

Really, we want to move forward on creating community around this idea. Noah Finkelstein and I did a version of this workshop at the Physics Education Research Conference 2013,  and Kate and I did it in February at the CU Boulder DBER meeting. We’ve had great conversations so far, and FIE seems like the perfect next venue. Here is our proposal for the session, complete with details.

We are hoping that participants will be interested enough to check out this little background paper, or at least use it to decide whether to attend. Comments welcome!

Sabbatical Travelogue

Volos 002Fantasy realized: sitting on a train, heading for a Greek port with a funky hotel waiting, working on my laptop. James beside me, searching a hotel for the next night on his phone. My fingers are still tender from starting to build calluses on the baglama we bought a few days ago in Athens. Rain showers pass by outside, wetting the green fields as we ride.

Yesterday I met with a couple of professors at the University of Athens. George Tombras is the chair of the Physics department, with a huge plate of challenge in front of him. 1500 students, 85 faculty (all “strong personalities”). 35 courses, 7 labs, and all students do a thesis. In the past four years an 80% cut in funding. Yes, 30% was not hard to absorb, but the other 50% has been painful. Couple that with the reality that only a few percent of their graduates can expect to find employment in physics. Over at the Technical University, the engineering graduates have an employment rate of maybe 15%. Think we have trouble with student motivation in the US? Yikes!

George and his assistant professor colleague Hector Nistazakis are exploring student conceptions of electricity and ways to increase the relevance of their courses. Our interests overlap in the area of how visualizations can be used. Hector also described his research on the use of wireless networks at optical wavelengths; dedicated building to building links for the ‘last mile’, the impact of atmospheric turbulence on signal attenuation, and how diffuse LEDs might be used for secure wireless transmitters in a room.

Our visit was on the Monday of their Easter break. Despite their difficulties, profs and grad students were working away, focused on what they do best.

Seeing into the heart

 Our visual systems are pretty impressive. Even when we are looking at images on a flat surface, our brains use all sorts of cues to create a 3D mental map. Shading on round objects helps, and of course the differences between what your right and left eyes see. If it’s moving, foreground objects will move faster than far field, and they’ll be larger (motion parallax). Shapes change as they rotate, and our brains interpret that easily. Occlusion, when an object passes behind another, is a big cue. Babies stop laughing at peek-a-boo when they figure that one out.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my stereoscopic computer monitor, looking at flow in the right heart. It’s so complicated that even when I use lots of shading and occlusion, twisting and turning the representation, I still need the stereo cues to really see what’s going on. But it’s thrilling when I do.

So now I want to show it to everybody, but nobody else I know uses the 3D technology, even though it’s now dirt cheap (Thank you gamers!). So we’re back to motion parallax, shading and occlusion: it needs to move. The flow also needs to be simpler, so in this video, I’ve removed all the small velocities and vorticities, edited out almost all left heart and other extraneous flows, and tried to keep the colors from being overwhelming (although I love saturated colors).

Please enjoy this intro ride through the right heart. I hope to have more soon.

Three Minute Thesis: the academic elevator speech

Here’s how the classic business-oriented elevator speech has evolved in academia. I’m going to ask my students to give this a try. The idea is to communicate the essentials of your research project (or thesis) in three minutes, in a way that anybody can understand, but without ‘dumbing it down’. Quite a challenge, but definitely an essential skill. If you want, there are international competitions you can enter. It’s been done in physics here at CU.