Kevin Lynch checks in with student Benjamin Stephens in the Mechatronics Design Laboratory

Yan Chen and Justin Moles

Getting their hands dirty

McCormick students find real solutions to today's problems

Walter P. Murphy had a vision for engineering students at Northwestern University. Rather than simply solving theoretical problems, Murphy believed that students were capable of important hands-on achievements. His gifts of $35 million to Northwestern between 1939 and 1942 established the Technological Institute, the cornerstone of a pragmatic approach to engineering that makes graduates of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science valuable to firms around the world. Today, that tradition continues with grants from the Walter P. Murphy Society that are awarded to McCormick faculty members who offer practical curricula for tomorrow's problem solvers. Here are two Murphy Society projects from faculty members who endeavor to do just that.

Making machines that work

When asked what she liked most about the course Introduction to Mechatronics, Jamie Wright (mechanical engineering ‘06) is unrestrained in her enthusiasm. “I'm finally getting my hands dirty,” she says, smiling broadly.

After numerous classes that were entrenched in the textbook theories of mechanical engineering, Wright savored her time in the Mechatronics Design Laboratory, an initiative headed by Kevin Lynch, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and made possible by a grant from the Murphy Society.

Throughout the year various McCormick students can be seen working at the Mechatronics Design Laboratory — which they often call their “second home” — building microprocessor-controlled electromechanical systems. Projects include an automatic plant waterer, a robot that moves chess pieces, an automatic card-dealing machine, and others. Even when students hit bumps on the road and their machines fail, says Lynch, they love what they're doing. “There's no easy way to learn debugging,” he says. “You have to experience actual problems in a design of your own, so that you are really invested. Only by struggling with problems you care about do you learn to isolate and fix them. Students also learn time management through this process as they learn to anticipate problems that might arise.”

“Actually, I think we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes,” adds Wright, a native of Dallas who has already enrolled in Advanced Mechatronics, taught by Professor Michael Peshkin. “It's actual learning,” she says, “because you're doing all the debugging yourself. In fact, this was the first time I learned how to apply the theories I learned in my other engineering classes.”

Popularity is proving to be the greatest challenge for Lynch and the Mechatronics Design Laboratory. “Introduction to Mechatronics and Advanced Mechatronics have gotten so popular that we were running out of room,” he says. In addition to those taking the courses, more than 50 students sign out keys to the MDL for independent projects each year — including, for example, robots for McCormick's annual Design Competition. That puts a strain on both space and equipment. “Equipment has a finite life,” says Lynch. “Just to keep the lab running costs money, but then you're also seeking upgrades.”

Both challenges are being addressed. “Fortunately, we'll have 50 percent more space this fall,” says Lynch, “because the lab is moving to the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center.” Murphy Society funds will provide more and newer equipment to optimize the new space. Adds Lynch, “Continuous support — especially from alumni — is absolutely critical.”

Thanks to the Murphy Society, McCormick students are getting hands-on experience developing machines that incorporate several aspects of engineering, from mechanical to electrical to computer science. It's no wonder that some students have even switched their major to mechanical engineering due to their experience in the Mechatronics Design Laboratory. “Students are excited to see the fruits of their labor in a working device,” explains Lynch.

Making information technology secure for everyone

In 2003 computer viruses and worms were responsible for more than $28 billion in economic losses, and that number will likely exceed $75 billion a year by 2007. Yet the devastating damage inflicted by acute computer infections causes far greater problems than monetary loss. Due to a lack of information security, Social Security numbers are stolen, private records are manipulated, and bank accounts are compromised — all of which plagues information security systems and violates the privacy of individuals.

Unfortunately, most engineering schools at top-tier universities don't provide adequate training for tomorrow's information technology professionals — those who will be on the front lines of the battle against hackers. McCormick is preparing students for real-world IT problems, however, thanks to Yan Chen, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and funding from the Walter P. Murphy Society.

According to Chen, students can't afford to be complacent about worms, viruses, and other threats to information security — and neither can universities. “Internet attacks are increasing in frequency, severity, and sophistication, so it's really critical that universities convey the importance of information security to their students,” he says.

“We do much better than most peer institutions, because Northwestern is a well-funded, elite university,” says Chen. “Before I came here, there was a gap in our curricular offerings because we didn't have an information security course sequence. Now, the Murphy Society grant allows us to prepare students for what they will face when they leave Northwestern.”

Murphy Society funds allowed Chen to create a course sequence in information security through his Information and Communication Security Curriculum Development Program. The first new courses have been well received by McCormick students, and Chen plans to maximize their interdisciplinary impact by opening the door to students in the rest of the University.

“Computer security is a relatively new field, and many of the concepts that form its groundwork are being challenged or expanded on a continual basis,” says Justin Moles (computer science ‘06), who benefited from the Chen's project when he took the new course Introduction to Computer Security. “The format of the class enables students to see how the field is developing and form their own opinions about where it is going,” he says. “I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in computer technology take this course.”

“We really want to have a basic class that is taught in plain language,” adds Chen, who has received national and international attention for his focus on information security, including a prestigious Department of Energy CAREER Award and a Microsoft Trustworthy Computing grant. “Information security is not just for the engineers who are solving the IT problems; it's for all professionals who run into security problems — especially business owners and those who are in charge of health care operations.”

Nevertheless, there is an increasing need for security specialists, making Chen's program all the more relevant. “The number of full-time information security professionals will rise almost 14 percent per year around the world, going past 2.1 million in 2008,” he says. “There has been an explosion of concern in information security over the past decade, so we're trying to make sure students understand the issues.”

—Alex Runner

Northwestern University