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Get the Fundamentals

Wed, 11/16/2011 - 3:54am
David Wilson, Motion Products Evangelist, Texas Instruments
David WilsonAs an aspiring engineer in the late '70s, I once asked a senior mentor to tell me the secret of his great success as an engineer. After a brief moment of introspection, he simply replied, "Get the fundamentals." I'm sure the puzzled look on my face was rather amusing, as I was expecting something more akin to a lengthy mystical mantra from a Jedi master. But reflecting back over my career, I can honestly say it was the best career advice I ever got. Once you truly understand the fundamentals of engineering, or science, or ...anything, the universe is your sandbox!

Many engineering educational institutions today proudly pedal their glossy brochures filled with color pictures of their well-equipped labs, touting the "hands-on" emphasis of their technical curricula. While I generally support a hands-on approach, I am growing more concerned that instruction on engineering fundamentals is being sacrificed on the altar of more glamorous "hands-on" experience. My perspective on this has evolved over 15 years of teaching motor control seminars around the world. During this time, I have encountered countless engineers who can write code like a gazelle, and use big words like "instantiate" on a daily basis, but they struggle with their motor control projects because nobody ever taught them the fundamentals involved with making a motor spin. Building your motor control knowledge base is like building a brick wall: you can't lay the bricks for the top layer until the foundational bricks are first put in place. In sections where the fundamental foundation is missing, you tend to try and "bridge over" these gaps. But when this happens, learning becomes more of an attempt at memorization than an exercise in inductive thinking.

There's another educational phenomenon I have noticed that drives engineers nuts! Have you ever taken a class where the topic was presented as a dry recital of boring equations, and nowhere was the fundamental principle behind those equations ever explained? Indeed, I recall my own educational experience where I was taught how to "plug-and-chug" through certain equations. But it wasn't until years later while on the job that I could actually "see" what those equations were trying to tell me. It seems to me that we got it all backwards. I have found that with most engineers, if you thoroughly explain the engineering concept first, they not only understand the equations better, but they can almost anticipate them!

In recent years I have been changing my motor control seminar material in an attempt to address these issues. I now make a conscious effort to lay down the fundamentals of how a motor works, and then build upon that. I also attempt to explain a given concept (often graphically) before introducing the equations which govern that concept. The results have been rather astonishing! For example, after one such seminar last week, a grateful engineer told me that my one hour section on Field Oriented Control was pretty much his whole semester course in grad school. Even though he was no doubt exaggerating, his tone revealed a bitter indictment of his educational experience.

Unfortunately, my seminars only allow me to reach a few people in a given city, at a given time. But with the power of the web, I can virtually reach anybody, anywhere, at any time! (People a lot smarter than me figured this out a long time ago, but you can imagine my excitement when I finally got it!) As a result, I am now converting all my motor control seminar material into video modules that will be posted on TI's web site. With the web venue, I also want to try something new that I couldn't do in my seminars. I want to "bring to life" the founding fathers of our technical heritage and revisit the experiments that led to the mathematical relationships we take for granted today. As we re-live the struggles of famous scientists like Oersted and Faraday, it makes the equations come alive for us, and helps to "cement" the concepts deep into the foundation of our understanding.

So stay tuned for further information on these videos as they become available. I hope you will have as much fun watching them as I anticipate I will have making them. And if TI sells some silicon along the way, well, that's good too. But our main goal is to help you "get the fundamentals", so you can work smarter and faster on your motor control projects!

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