A Conversation with David Orser—Teacher, and Mentor

David Orser joined ECE in 2016 as a teaching faculty hired to breathe new life into the laboratory experience of our degree curricula. He has been instrumental in introducing some substantive changes that have since shaped our students’ engagement with the hands-on parts of their ECE coursework. Project-based experiential learning can make  complex concepts more accessible, and our students are reaping the benefits of our newly refreshed labs. 

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with David and learn about his journey to ECE, his experience as a mentor, and his advice for students interested in robotics. 

Tell us about your educational background and what brought you to the University.  I graduated from Minnesota State University with a BSEE degree and started working for IBM developing custom chips for fiber optic networks. For the next ten years, I continued to develop cutting-edge custom mixed-signal chips while raising a family and finishing my Master’s Degree from the University of Minnesota through the UNITE program. Having always felt a call to teach, I decided to return to the University to earn a doctoral degree. I chose to shift fields slightly from microelectronics to power electronics, to expand my horizons. Over the course of four years, I earned my PhD by developing a new power converter control strategy, building a power converter to test it, while also working (separately) for MISO as a consultant on a project to scope both the cost and technical feasibility of a coast-to-coast 15GW macro-grid.

I have been working over the past four years to update our ECE lab curricula based on both, the teaching of fundamental concepts and by providing open-ended student-defined projects within our courses.

What are some key drivers that have motivated you in your academic and professional life?  All throughout my career, I have taken an active interest in developing new solutions to help my colleagues work more efficiently. From an automatic simulation submission systems, to a lab-based automated data generation and jitter analysis scripts, these tools are used even today by my former colleagues.  I love to extend my knowledge into new areas to develop solutions that help my teams solve problems, both current and in the future.

When you were hired as a teaching faculty, your primary charge was to innovate and update ECE’s lab curricula. Tell us about your work in the area.  I have been working over the past four years to update our ECE lab curricula based on both, the teaching of fundamental concepts and by providing open-ended student-defined projects within our courses. Each of the early weekly labs are tied to specific learning objectives. Those are followed by intermediate or final projects that allow students to address areas that interest them, but still meet specific course requirements and more importantly, tight deadlines.  These final projects span the entirety of our student experience here in ECE with at least one hands-on lab-based project each year. So far this includes the freshman Internet of Things showcase, sophomore low-level device API development for microcontrollers, junior design project, and the ECE senior design show.

Farmington High School’s FIRST Robotics team was recently in the news for a wheelchair the students built for 2-year old Cillian Jackson, who has mobility issues. You are a mentor for the team. How did you get involved with FIRST? 
I was introduced to FIRST by my eldest daughter, Siri. At the time she joined the Robotics Club in high school, I had no idea what FIRST was and didn’t coach that season. I simply showed up to support my daughter in the competition held at Williams Arena on campus and was blown away by the 2000-plus competing-cheering-helping-building teenagers inspired by technology. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to help grow.

When my daughter joined the Robotics Club in high school, I had no idea what FIRST was. I simply showed up to support her in the competition and was blown away by the 2000-plus competing teenagers inspired by technology. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to help grow, and now I have been a mentor for Farmington’s FIRST robotics team, Rogue Robotics, for 6 seasons.

How did the mobility device project for Cilliam Jackson come about? And how did the team handle it? The entire opportunity was an amazing experience. Late last November, I received a text message from the team’s  head coach that a family had reached out for help to build a mobility device for their 2-year old son. In less than two days, putting on hold a couple of pre-season training events, we pulled together a plan, and a schedule, and had both students and mentors signed up to contribute to the project. Over the course of the next three weeks, there were several  ups and down, as well as late nights, but we finished it just in time for Christmas!

How long have you been engaged with the Farmington team? And what are some of your responsibilities?  I have been a mentor for Farmington’s FIRST robotics team, Rogue Robotics,  for 6 seasons now. I am the lead programming mentor for the team and my primary responsibilities include teaching high school students how to program in C++, and develop control systems for the robot including Robot Vision and PID systems. I also play a primary role in the Aesthetics Team, which develops our LED-based cheering signs and robot bling. I am the most senior non-teacher mentor on the team and organize many of our non-school-based events, including student leadership lessons learned meetings, mentor season review meetings, conference attendance, and student summer projects.

I love that FIRST and Rogue Robotics provide students with both, the opportunity to learn new science and engineering skills, as well as the places to apply those skills to solve real problems.

What are some key highlights of working with the team?  I love that FIRST and Rogue Robotics provide students with both, the opportunity to learn new science and engineering skills, as well as the places to apply those skills to solve real problems. This includes obviously, doing the work to solve a problem, but more importantly, setting tight deadlines such that you must negotiate compromises among competing needs such as power, weight, complexity, time, etc. in order to be successful. Another part of the experience that I highly value is that students on the team have always jumped at the opportunity to help others, whether that is through a Feed My Starving Children outing, cleaning up a park, or building a wheelchair for a 2-year old boy.  To have students who ask to be taught, and then push to do more with those skills every week provides me with an incredible amount of energy.

What are some other volunteer opportunities you have previously engaged in, or are currently involved with?  I volunteer as an instructor with  University on the Prairie, a three day University of Minnesota outreach event for students entering grades seven through eleven in rural Lamberton, Minnesota. Using active and experiential learning techniques, I teach students engineering topics  such as soldering, electronics, and programming. At the end of the course, students take home a project (solar powered blinking owl, and 3D printed solar tracking servo motor) they have built over the three days.

I am also currently working on  projects that will expand the teaching of programming to high school students, both through FIRST and hopefully as a College in the Schools (CIS) course.

Seeing the work ethic, strength, and ingenuity of the FIRST Robotics students inspires me to expect more from our students. And my University  students always inspire me with how far they can reach. An instructor just has to ask, and our students will rise to the challenge. The CSE 1012 and EE 1301 project showcases are examples of the heights to which our students are capable of soaring.

How does your work in ECE connect with your mentoring activities? And does work in one area help trigger ideas, teaching/coaching methods, or learning outcomes in the other?  My work in ECE is focused on undergraduate education and the work I do in FIRST influences my teaching every day. For instance, I learned to teach closed-loop control to high school students, without advanced math, and in doing so developed robust analogies and real-world examples.  I use these analogies and examples in my teaching at the sophomore and junior levels in the department to illustrate the implications of complex mathematical theories.

Seeing the work ethic, strength, and ingenuity of the FIRST Robotics students inspires me to expect more from our students. And my University  students always inspire me with how far they can reach, from the EE 1301 students with no previous coding experience to students, in the very same class who come in with ten years of real-world coding experience. An instructor just has to ask, and our students will rise to the challenge. The CSE 1012 and EE 1301 project showcases are examples of the heights to which our students are capable of soaring.

What advice do you have for students interested in robotics ? As students, you will need to develop strong fundamentals through your math and science courses, and through your ECE-centered theory courses.  Regularly applying these theory skills in real-world environments and projects is critical to understanding which effects are important and which can be safely ignored or need to be bent. Learning to be a good engineer requires technical skills, but engineers who learn to work with others in spite of conflict, learn how to help others succeed, and learn to communicate to non-engineers, are the ones who will really succeed.

What is ECE’s role in your expanding portfolio of responsibilities?  My volunteer efforts are enabled by the department’s support of volunteer and outreach efforts as part of my appointment and through their financial donations to University on the Prairie and the Solar Vehicle Project. This support allows me to be involved at the level I am. The University and the department’s support is critical to the success of my volunteer efforts, and for that I am very grateful. 

Acknowledgements to Go Baby Go, and FIRST

Rogue Robotics credits the GoBabyGo program at the University of Delaware for providing technical help as they worked on the device for Cilian, and FIRST for opportunities and inspiration along the way.

Learn more about Prof. David Orser’s work