TEDxUofM welcomed two speakers from ECE to its stage to “give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less.” Profs. Shai Revzen and Herbert Winful spoke about their passion for their work at the sixth annual conference, themed “Constructive Interference.”
Herbert Winful: How Hidden Passions Can Connect People
“Play is what stimulates the imagination; and play is essential for creativity.”
Prof. Winful studies complicated phenomena related to nonlinear optics, but at heart he is an artist. He sees the beauty in everything, including Maxwell’s equations, and relishes the chance to explore creative expression in various fields.
In his talk entitled, How Hidden Passions Can Connect People, Prof. Winful reminisced about the many artistic influences in his life that keep him active and creative. He discussed the interdisciplinary course he helped create, UARTS 250: Creative Process, and the creative challenges of teaching engineering principles to students of the arts.
In classroom videos from the course, audience members witnessed his students create everything from crawling vehicles to moving works of art from simple motors of their own creation.
In one of Prof. Winful’s more typical engineering courses, EECS 230 (Electromagnetics I), he and his entire class turned to art to deal with the tragic death of a fellow classmate. To help the students express their grief, Prof. Winful organized an evening of music and art, performed by students in the class. It was an evening of healing, and led to an annual EECS performance art event featuring faculty, students, and staff.
Prof. Winful closed his talked by performing his original composition, “Spirit Dreams,” on piano.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play the Power Center,” he said to an appreciative crowd.
Prof. Winful has made fundamental contributions to nonlinear fiber optics, nonlinear optics in periodic structures, the nonlinear dynamics of laser arrays, the propagation of single-cycle pulses, and the physics of tunneling. His awards include the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, the Amoco/University Teaching Award, the State of Michigan Teaching Award, the College of Engineering Teaching Excellence and Service Excellence Awards, and two EECS Professor of the Year Awards.
Shai Revzen: Facing the Unknown, With Robots
Prof. Revzen is fascinated by the unknown. “The unknown and unknowable are the quintessential property of life,” he said in his talk on robotics and scientific exploration, entitled, Facing the Unknown, With Robots.
It would seem to make sense to build robots with a specific goal in mind. But how do you design your robot when the goal is unknowable?
Prof. Revzen believes that the next frontier in robotics is to design robots than can adapt to unforeseen situations. With unlimited robotic assistance tailored to a task in the moment, exploration and discovery could be greatly enhanced.
For example, explained Shai, when the Mars rover Opportunity encountered the Burns Cliff on Mars, it was stuck. It wasn’t designed to climb. Maybe it would have found fossils – but we’ll never know, or at least we won’t know for quite a while.
His solution? Robots building robots.
In a crowd-pleasing video, Prof. Revzen demonstrated his research on a unit that can assemble robots of varying shapes and functions with foam. The resulting creations could move around, uncannily resembling their bio-inspirations (a mud-puppy and a snake, respectively).
Prof. Revzen’s robots come prepared to face the unknown, to “solve the problems that we find, after we know what they are.”
Prof. Revzen directs the BIRDS (Biologically Inspired Robotics and Dynamical Systems) Lab. He seeks to identify, model, and reproduce the strategies animals use when they interact with physical objects. He is also designing devices that can build robots on the fly – ready to accomplish a variety of tasks as needed.
About the Event
TED is a nonprofit organization that hosts conferences as a platform for industry leaders to discuss their ideas and experiences. TEDx allows local communities to organize similar events. U-M’s conference has grown to be a huge success. This year’s event at the Power Center for the Performing Arts sold out, and the crowd’s enthusiasm was contagious.
Mihir Sheth, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and Chief Financier for this year’s event, introduced Herb and Shai.