“Keep Austin weird” is probably the best civic slogan I have ever encountered. Austin, Texas is one of the most charming cities in the US. It’s the capital of the state of Texas and also the self-professed live music capital of the world. In addition, the University of Texas at Austin is the largest university in the US, and its influence on the technology sector has spun off a very vibrant high technology business center as well. This mix of government, the arts, academia, and technology is the quintessential recipe for a very dynamic, vibrant, and yes, weird (in a good way) community.

Last week, Austin was also home to the Annual Conference of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) and expectedly, Maplesoft was an active sponsor and exhibitor. The ASEE is one of America’s oldest professional societies, having been founded in 1893. From a conference perspective, I have always enjoyed their meetings as they are uniquely interdisciplinary. Unlike typical engineering conferences where the themes seem to get more and more specialized and narrow each year, ASEE remains steadfastly broad. Words such as “profession” and “design” seem to mean something for these folks and often carry a much richer concept.


One of the themes that Maplesoft presented at the conference was our contribution to the world of mechatronics. Maple has always, in some sense, played a role in mechatronics and engineering modeling in general – typically as a symbolic mathematical language to deal with the algebraic clutter in modeling. Of course, more recently, MapleSim has continued that tradition with a whole slate of highly optimized tools to expand the basic concept, and to accelerate a whole range of processes to such an extent that it is now enabling solutions to challenging modeling applications in industry and academic research and teaching.

Typically, in an engineering context, I’d wax on about the tremendous increase in embedded code speed or some other very practical benefit. In the context of ASEE, however, there is another fundamental dimension to the MapleSim/Maple story. As the main theme of the two talks that I gave, I stressed the importance of bridging the gap between the theory and the final physical implementation. The truth is, educators have historically done a marvelous job in presenting all of the foundational ideas that support engineering technique, but the transition from this traditional theoretical view to the real world of machines and instruments have always vexed even the most talented and motivated among educators.

Using mechatronics as a very real and concrete context, I presented our case of natively symbolic mathematical technology as a bridge between theory and implementation. The idea is pretty simple. What if a technology could allow you to work with engineering theory efficiently and in an error-free manner? And what if this way of working gave you the time and insight to grasp the practical implication of the theory? Well, symbolic computation as embodied by MapleSim and Maple is exactly that. These tools take care of all the time consuming and painful parts of the engineering process but leave all of the key concepts and ideas intact – “remove the pain without sacrificing rigor” is the sentiment I proposed.


Industry trends

Although this basic idea has been kicking around for almost two decades, it appears to be more timely these days. I, and other bloggers have noted how industry is in transition – demanding a greater level of scientific and mathematical sophistication from its engineers. This has led to a dramatic increase in the level of interest from companies and research groups on the potential of natively symbolic tools like MapleSim. Better management of the underlying engineering math can effectively empower the modern engineer to handle greater analytical complexity.

Yours truly (on right) with Keith Blanchett of Quanser (some of the most innovative mechatronics devices available), making the case for a richer, more relevant approach to mechatronics education.

In many ways, this insight on the part of industry is really the same thing that universities are discovering. Ten years ago, theory was something you did in the classroom or those guys in the white lab coats did in the annex building next door. “Real Engineers” did their thing through raw instinct and sheer mental brawn. But as time passed and as the tools of theory became more sophisticated, easy to use, and connected well to current tool-chains, many of us began seriously looking at the potential of math and the new tools that make math accessible in practical modern engineering, and all indications are, engineers whether in industry or a university, are starting to discover more time to be creative and thorough.

We went to Austin to talk about mechatronics and engineering modeling in general. And through this process we had a chance to meet hundreds of engineers curious about how the profession and industry is changing. Ten years ago, if I were to stand in front of an audience and preach that engineers in training or in practice should do a lot more math, I would have been laughed out of the room for such “weird” ideas (unfortunately I know this from personal experience). But today, the story is very different. Engineers are listening and signs of transformation are everywhere.  Yes, Austin may still strive to be weird, but for me, last week, Austin was the center of clarity and foresight. Poking through the ambient buzz of young hopefuls wailing Stevie Ray Vaughn songs on 6th St., was the occasional chit chat on “embedded control”, “pedagogy”, “capstone design”, and of course “mechatronics”. Come to think of it … that is kind of weird. Till next time.

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