Introducing the ECE Learning Center

In September 2018, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering opened the ECE Learning Center. The space is in alignment with the department’s practice of supporting our student community through several venues: student groups of praxis, research opportunities, tutoring support, creative/maker spaces, and tutoring support. The study space has been made possible by support from the College of Science and Engineering, and the generosity of our donors. It is designed to bring students together, to study, collaborate, and get the help they might need from instructors and peers.

With the establishment of the Learning Center, the hope is that the room functions not only as a  space for students to learn and work together, but also works to develop a sense of community and belonging in students pursuing our majors. The Center was established based on the premise held by education scholars that student success is directly correlated to a feeling of belonging and of being valued. And these are feelings that can be fostered by establishing spaces where students can actively engage with each other in projects, meet with faculty, or connect over other co- and extracurricular activities.

Conceived to function as a collaborative space, the Learning Center, which is located in 2-276 Keller Hall, will help our students connect with their class teaching assistants, and find available tutoring resources for their courses. It will also function as a group study space, and a place for students to work on academic projects or other creative endeavors. To support all of these, the room is equipped with five 55-inch television screens with HDMI connections, plenty of glassboard workspace, and several tables and chairs that can be organized based on needs.

Since the Center opened, it has been a busy place. Besides teaching assistants holding their scheduled office hours, we have also had faculty hold special study sessions before key mid-term exams. Prof. Beth Stadler has found the center to be a convenient place to meet students and address their class related queries, supported by the glass board and the displays. Besides, the layout of the room allows for multiple students to listen in and engage in the discussion with the faculty, which is typically not possible in the instructor’s office setting.

Prof. Beth Stadler, who recently used the center for a Q&A session before a midterm, says: “[The center] was easily accessible for me and the students, and we just hung out using the white board until all questions were answered.”

Other entities utilizing the room actively are Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), the IEEE honor society which has been holding tutoring hours, WIE (Women in Engineering), that has been coordinating study nights with HKN, and senior design students holding regular team meetings and brainstorming sessions, and practicing their presentations. While the space is only months old, based on how popular and busy it is turning out to be, we are hoping that it turns into an anchor location for our students to turn to during their hours after class. And perhaps, as they spend more time in the ECE Learning Center, studying and collaborating, they might establish long lasting connections, creating and nurturing the “sense of place” that education scholars George Kuh and Kathleen Mannine refer to in “Making Place Matter to Student Success.” They point to evidence that indicates that institutions that provide students a “palpable sense of place” can positively impact student success. Our hope is that the ECE Learning Center can be a catalytic space for our students for learning, success, and lifelong connections to people and the department.

Modou Jaw

Modou Jaw: Student and Entrepreneur

Modou Jaw is a busy man. He is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in ECE, and has not a moment to spare. Over the past summer, he completed an internship with Google, and then headed over to Intel as an intern for fall. Considering his tight schedule, we did manage to steal a few moments to talk, and learn more about his journey to the University and his plans for the future.  

Growing up in Gambia, the smiling coast of Africa, Modou remembers being driven to learn and be academically successful. Always ranked at the top of his class every semester, he completed high school with the opportunity to travel either to the United Kingdom or to the United States to further his education. This was in 2008, at the time of the US presidential elections, and interested in the political scene here, Modou chose to come to the United States. He arrived here as an international student headed for Oklahoma. But Oklahoma turned out to be more expensive than he could afford, and Modou moved to Minnesota. He worked 60 hours a week and went to school part time at Minnesota Community and Technical College. Success followed him at MCTC too. He was one of only 20 students across the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to win the Mark M. Welter World Citizen Award as a mathematics student at MCTC. The Welter scholarship and the support of his older brother helped Modou earn his Associate’s degree.

He was one of only 20 students across the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to win the Mark M. Welter World Citizen Award as a mathematics student at MCTC.

After earning his associate’s degree at MCTC, Modou moved to the University of Minnesota to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering, initially. His move to the University was an outcome of his experience as an intern at Minco while a freshman at MCTC and the encouragement of his internship supervisor, a graduate from the University, who was impressed by Modou’s problem solving skills. While at Minco, he had the opportunity to work alongside mechanical and electrical engineers, and Modou began to actively evaluate what major he might be interested in pursuing. There was some friendly jostling between the electrical and mechanical engineers, with the electrical engineers claiming that their area of expertise was far more complex, and their problem solving skills thereby far superior. A lover of challenges himself, Modou decided that electrical engineering would be his chosen path. But as he waded deeper into his internship, he noticed that the electrical engineers on his team also wrote software for the hardware they designed. Piqued by this, Modou considered pursuing a double major in electrical engineering and computer science. But on arriving at the University, he was introduced to another option, Computer Engineering, that exists at the interface of hardware and software. It would allow him to move between the worlds of hardware design and electrical engineering, and writing software. And it would eventually be Modou’s major of choice.

Modou’s decision has been a sound one for him. It has opened doors to exciting and challenging opportunities: internships with technology leaders such as Google and Intel, and interactions with experts practising in the field. Having completed his internship with Google over the summer, he is currently on assignment with Intel for the fall. Along the way, he hopes to resurrect a company he had founded while at MCTC called 9qbd. The company is intended to work as a one stop shop for web applications, software for phones and other devices, serving a variety of local Somali businesses.

Over the summer, while Modou interned on the west coast, he teamed up with a few other motivated young individuals to participate in Hack4Diversity, a hackathon hosted by the Univision Technological Training Center in collaboration with Code2040. An outcome of this participation was NetBridge, an app that has been been developed based on the team’s personal experiences and their shared journeys as immigrants and people of color struggling to find mentors they could relate to. NetBridge will connect mentor-seekers with mentors with similar backgrounds, individuals who share similar journeys. The app was well-received at the competitive hackathon: Modou and his teammates won the People’s Choice award, as well as the Ready to Launch award. NetBridge is poised to be launched in April 2018 by Code2040. (Watch a video of their presentation here, and information on Code2040 here.)

NetBridge was well-received at the competitive hackathon: Modou and his teammates won the People’s Choice award, as well as the Ready to Launch award.

But the story of Modou’s entrepreneurial spirit does not end with NetBridge. He is keen on giving back to the community he grew up in, and has been turning over a few ideas in his mind. He is hoping to put the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) to good use to help farmers in Africa by introducing some form of low cost automated farming techniques. He is also thinking of ways to harness the power of IoT to address the electric power situation in Gambia. To this end he has been tapping on the expertise of faculty members Prof. Rhonda Franklin, Prof.John Sartori, Prof. Ned Mohan (from ECE), and Prof. Nikos Papanikopoulos (from CS&E).

For Modou, the road ahead looks promising, full of hope and challenges. He has travelled a long way in more ways than one, and his experiences along the way will certainly support him as he embarks on his professional career. And we in ECE wait to see what new heights he will scale next.

Click here for Univision’s coverage of Hack4diversity

Lauren Otto

Lauren Otto earned her doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering in spring 2017. Her dissertation was titled, “Engineering Materials and Characterization Methods for Mass-produced Plasmonic Devices” and her thesis advisor was Prof. Beth Stadler. Two weeks later, she received the Outstanding Poster Award at SPP8, the 8th International Conference on Surface Plasmon Photonics, held in Taipei, Taiwan.

On what motivated her doctoral research, Lauren says. “In 2014, I did an internship at HGST, now part of Western Digital Corporation, where I learned about some materials challenges HAMR (heat-assisted magnetic recording) technology was facing. Around the same time, I learned about titanium nitride and saw it as a potential fix to the problem. However traditional deposition techniques were not compatible with HAMR technology. If a high-quality synthetic metal material could be generated using an atomic layer deposition (ALD) based technique, then that might prove to be a solution to the problem. This was the underlying motivation for my work, and the things I accomplished for my dissertation were stepping stones towards demonstrating this end application.”

Lauren completed a portion of her doctoral research at the Molecular Foundry, which is a nanoscience research facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (a DOE supported national laboratory). There she focused on developing materials called synthetic metals (for instance, a conductive ceramic like titanium nitride) using ALD-based techniques, which allows for the coating of arbitrary surfaces conformally one atomic layer at a time. For Lauren, her goal was to create a materials platform that was well-suited for industrial use and could enable mass-produced plasmonic devices such as the nanoantennas in HAMR hard drive heads.

As with most dissertations, practical factors such as access and availability of resources, both material and expert, at LBNL, also influenced the direction taken by Lauren’s doctoral work.

Impact of Lauren’s research

Lauren has seen firsthand how impactful her work is. “At the Molecular Foundry, one key outcome of my work is a well-characterized and reliable process for plasma-enhanced ALD titanium nitride, which is now used by visiting researchers from around the world.”

The result of her research is gaining public traction. 

“A highlight of my research was demonstrating some initial work towards three dimensional conductive and plasmonic photonic crystals, which I brought as a poster to SPP8 in Taipei in May. I was fortunate to win an award for my poster presenting my work, and they have invited my co-authors and me to submit an article on it to a special issue of ACS Photonics.”

Next Phase: Cyclotron Road

The next phase of Lauren’s research has taken her to Cyclotron Road: “Our desire to have a deposition tool for only nitrides (to reduce oxygen contamination) led to the invention of a new form of ALD, and is part of what I pitched to Cyclotron Road and will be aiming to develop with Laminera. If realized on an industrial scale, ALD synthetic metals could enable future technological devices in data storage, semiconductor fabrication, solar, batteries, and high surface area electrodes for supercapacitors or water desalination devices.”

“Cyclotron Road is an incubator for energy and materials innovations and is a partnership between LBNL and Activation Energy. Getting in to Cyclotron Road was a four month process with an initial application and a few rounds of interviews and pitches. Each round required me to further refine what I was pitching and create an  initial business model around what will eventually be Laminera’s product. I am grateful to my Berkeley collaborators who helped me refine the pitch as the process advanced. Out of over 100 applying projects, the program team at Cyclotron Road selected only nine. Each team receives a two year fellowship as well as support for work at LBNL, mentorship in becoming an entrepreneur in our technology space, peers to go on the journey with (the cohort model), and numerous valuable connections to and conversations with executives, entrepreneurs, and funders through the Cyclotron Road network. Based on my experience so far, the community aspect both at Cyclotron Road and in the broader network has been invaluable.”

Learn more about Cyclotron Road

Learn more about Laminera