Faculty Directory
J. Alex Birdwell

Assistant Professor of Instruction in Undergraduate Engineering


2133 Sheridan Road
Ford 1.204
Evanston, IL 60208-3109

847-467-3858Email J. Alex Birdwell


Lightboard Studio

NU Robotics Club


Undergraduate Engineering

Download CV


PhD Mechanical Engineering, Northwestern University, 2012

MS Mechanical Engineering, Northwestern University, 2006

BS Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Tech, 2004

Research Interests

Dr. Birdwell is a lecturing professor and does not run a graduate research lab. He manages the Lightboard Studio, which is co-managed and developed by Professor Michael Peshkin, and is interested in studying how education video content can be used to enhance student learning. He currently uses online content to complement his traditional classroom experience.  He also assists others with creating content for their flipped and online courses, class projects, and organizations.

His research interests include human-robot interactions, rehabilitation engineering, user-centered design, and engineering education.  His graduate work focused on the development of novel control algorithms for multifunctional artificial hands with applications in prosthetics and teleoperation.

Dr. Birdwell constantly strives to innovate in the classroom, re-invent a course, and reinvigorate existing classes with new course materials, updated learning objectives, and produce online content.  He enjoys serving as a project reviewer for Capston Design courses in mechanical engineering and the Segal Design Institute and advising undergraduate research projects.

Professor Birdwell is a faculty advisor for the NU Robotics Club, which is co-advised by Professors Mitra Hartmann and Nick Marchuk.

Significant Recognition

  • 2013 - 2014 Faculty Honor Roll, as voted by Northwestern's Associated Student Government

Courses Taught

  • DSGN 106-1 & 2 - Design Thinking and Communication 1 & 2 (DTC)
  • ME 220 - Introduction to Thermodynamics
  • ME 224 - Experimental Engineering
  • ME 240 - Introduction to Mechanical Design and Manufacturing
  • ME 340-1 - Manufacturing Processes

Selected Publications

    Birdwell JA and Peshkin MA.  Capturing Technical Lectures on Lightboard.  122nd American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, WA, USA, June 14-17, 2015.

    Birdwell JA, Hargrove LJ, Weir RF, and Kuiken RA.  Extrinsic Finger and Thumb Muscles Command a Virtual Hand to Allow Individual Finger and Grasp Control.  IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.  62(1): 218-226.  2014.

    Cipriani, C, Segil, JL, Birdwell, JA, and Weir, RF.  Dexterous Control of a Prosthetic Hand Using Fine-Wire Intramuscular Electrodes in Targeted Extrinsic Muscles. IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering. 2014.

    Birdwell JA, Hargrove LJ, Kuiken TA, and Weir RF.  Isolated Activation of the Extrinsic Thumb Muscles and Compartments of the Extrinsic Finger Muscles.  J Neurophysiology.  2013.

    Birdwell JA, Hargrove LJ, Weir RF. Quantification of Isolated Muscle Compartment Activity in Extrinsic Finger Muscles for Potential Prosthesis Control Sites. 33RD Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, Boston, USA, 2011.

    Birdwell JA, Solomon JH, Thajchayapong M, Taylor MA, Cheely M, Towal RB, Conradt J, and Hartmann MJ. Biomechanical models for radial distance determination by the rat vibrissal system. J Neurophysiol 98: 2439-2455, 2007.  The model presented in this paper is now referred to within the research community as “The Birdwell Model.”

In the Classroom

Professor Birdwell is immensely passionate about teaching and currently covers an array of courses within the mechanical engineering department and the Segal Design Institute.  He aims to engage his students with real-world applications and examples, open dialog and discussions during class, a thorough understanding of the materials, and unique classroom demonstrations created with everyday objects. His teaching methods seek to bridge the gap between what students are already familiar with, both through classroom theory and personal experiences, and new materials they’re currently learning.  He believes that engineering students should be well-rounded, and will incorporate presentation and communication exercises into his courses, along with the engineering materials.  Professor Birdwell will be covering the following courses:

  • DSGN 106 - Design Thinking & Communication: user-centered design, project management, engineering drawing, prototyping and shop skills, client-based project course (two-quarter sequence)
  • ME 220 - Thermodynamics I:Introduction the first three Laws of Thermodynamics, lectures will cover practical and theoretical examples from the book and everyday life
  • ME 224 - Experimental Engineering: Lecture and heavy-focus on laboratory exercises geared to teach the process of conducting a thorough experiment, data acquisition/analysis/presentation, report writing, filter design and frequency response
  • ME 240 - Introduction to Mechanical Design & Manufacturing: Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T), laboratory focus on CAD (NX CAM), failure mode analysis, end-of-term bracket project to design and build load-bearing metal bracket to sustain given load and fit geometric constraints
  • ME 340-1 - Computer Integrated Manufacturing I: Manufacturing Process: Introduction to various manufacturing processes and their fundamental governing equations and constraints, limitations, and economics factors, laboratory exercises explore applications of theory covered in lecture including making a sand casting mold, measuring metal cutting forces, and performing sheet metal bending and forming operations, among others.