Dr. Tim Wilson is the chair person of the Electrical, Computer, Software, & Systems Engineering (ECSSE) Department at the Daytona Beach campus, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
1. Can you tell us about your background and what motivated you to come to Embry-Riddle?
I grew up in rural middle Tennessee. My home town, Centerville, Tennessee, is the only incorporated town in all of Hickman County. When I was growing up, Centerville had a population of 2500 people; Hickman County, 12,500. I was able to get into MIT but didn’t succeed the first time, so I dropped out and tried to make a living as a performing musician for a few years. I supported myself in a number of interesting jobs, including typesetting and delivering radioactive pharmaceutical. No, I don’t glow in the dark. Seeing people younger than me who had graduated college and were now my boss motivated me to get my rear back into school, and MIT was gracious enough to let me back in for a second chance.
While I had pretty much been a physics major in the first go-around; when I went back, I wanted to study electrical engineering (EE) because I had been playing synthesizers (and other keyboards) as a musician. I was successful beyond my imaginings on that second time around and got straight ‘A’s except one ‘B’ in a complex variables math class. Plus, I got to work at MIT’s Experimental Music Studio doing undergraduate research (via their UROP, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the equivalent of our Ignite! program). I ended up going to graduate school, working at the Research Lab for Electronics in the Speech Recognition Group for my master’s degree, and then in the Auditory Research Group for my doctorate. For the master’s degree, I modeled how the firings of the auditory nerve work, and for my doctorate, I investigated a model of the mammalian inner ear to try to understand whether prior observations of the change in stiffness along the inner ear’s length could account for the frequency selectivity of our hearing.
I got a position at the University of Memphis after finishing my doctorate in 1994, stayed there for 6.5 years, and was looking to move starting fall 2000. I ended up at ERAU serendipitously. My mom lived in Daytona Beach and was in poor health, so we wanted to relocate closer to her. I looked online (this was spring 2000, so online position listings were still somewhat new) at an IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) jobs site, and there was a listing for someone to teach electrical engineering courses for the BS in Computer Engineering program. That one year visiting appointment turned into a tenure-track position, followed by tenure, then promotion to full professor eventually.
I served as Vice-Speaker of the Daytona Beach Faculty in academic year 2006-2007 and then was elected Speaker for the two-year term in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. I was appointed chair of the newly formed Department of Electrical, Computer, Software, and Systems Engineering starting in January 2010. The department was formed by merging the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering with the Department of Computer and Software Engineering.
In addition to my ERAU duties, I serve on the Board of Directors of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, the DiscoverE (formerly known as the National Engineers Week Foundation) Diversity Council, and the American Society for Engineering Education‘s Diversity Committee. Seeing that engineering education and employment reflect the diversity in American society is a passion of mine.
2. As the Department Chair, can you tell us some of the highlights of the Electrical, Computer, Software, & Systems Engineering (ECSSE) Department?
Sometimes people wonder what all the areas of our department have in common — we have undergraduate degrees in computer engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, and computer science — but it’s really pretty straightforward: they all deal with common technologies that are by-and-large invisible. You can’t see the electrons moving in wires; the transistors in modern computing devices are incredibly tiny; we communicate over invisible radio frequencies. A computer program may be visible text, but it often translates into incredibly fast electrical signals representing the ones and zeros of binary logic, and large software programs, like large systems of any type, have an organizational and implementational framework that’s pretty much just an organized collection of concepts. So whether we’re dealing with the basic units of electricity or the structure of complex systems, we’re still dealing with stuff that’s largely invisible. All those are quite distinct from the structures that make up an aircraft or spacecraft or the motions of those through the atmosphere or space, but the aircraft and the spacecraft both depend on the invisible electronics, radio, software, and systems engineering to get up and get back down safely.
But even though the engineering domains deal with “invisible” stuff, we pride ourselves on giving students hands-on opportunities from the get-go. We want our programs to take students to better and better approximations to engineering as it’s practiced in industry, so we move from simple team-based projects in EGR 101 through coursework involving individual and team projects, until the two-semester multidisciplinary capstone course.
We like to think that we graduate engineers, not graduates with engineering degrees. One of our Industry Advisory Board members once told me that he liked hiring our graduates because they were used to working like engineers when they graduated. That made me really proud.
3. What skills/strengths make our graduates stand out in the work force?
First, they get a top-notch technical education. Second, on top of that, they get the knowledge and experience of real-world engineering. There aren’t many undergraduate programs in the USA, including the top notch schools like my alma mater, that put as much emphasis on systems thinking and engineering processes. Our graduates know not only that what they’re working on is part of a bigger system, they understand how it fits into the bigger system. Our graduates know what engineering requirements are, how validation and verification are practiced, how a system is decomposed into smaller sub-systems and then how those sub-systems integrate into a larger working system.
Finally, while they may not be experts at it, our graduates have some familiarity with system development in a regulatory environment. You can’t just write a piece of software or build a piece of hardware and put it on even a general aviation aircraft, much less a transport category commercial aircraft or a military aircraft. Given how little graduates of other programs know about any kind of regulatory framework, our students stand out and are valued by aerospace and aviation employers just for being aware of how regulations might impact system development.
4. What new initiatives or research is the ECSSE Department participating in?
As far as new programs go, we expect to launch a new area of concentration for the BS in Computer Science and a new MS degree starting this coming fall, both called Cybersecurity Engineering. Those programs will focus on the technologies of cybersecurity: encryption, white-hat hacking, secure software and hardware. There are an increasing number of jobs these days in those areas, and with the attention, good or bad, that the NSA is getting as well as the growing demand for professionals in the field, we’re glad the programs are getting launched. There’s an entire subfield there of cybersecurity for aerospace: how to ensure that digital communications between flight crew and controller aren’t subverted; how to make GPS and ADS-B (Automatic Dependant Surveillance – Broadcast) more secure; how to keep bad hackers or enemy personnel from accessing on-board computers.
Our faculty are engaged in some pretty sexy stuff. The research in aerospace cybersecurity, mentioned above, will also involve development of standards for developing and operating cybersecure systems, and one of our faculty, Dr. Remzi Seker in particular, is involved in setting those standards. We have faculty investigating what’s called “passive sensing”, where instead of the traditional ping-and-return direct radar or ping-and-respond secondary radar, the location of a plane is determined by comparing its reflection of existing radio-frequency signals, say satellite radio or digital broadcast television as the illuminators, with direct reception of those same signals. Our Dr. Billy Barott is a leader in that area; he’s serving on one NATO committee on the topic as well as on the Digital Avionics Technical Committee of the AIAA (American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics). Our Dr. Richard Stansbury does work involving putting ADS-B on commercial launch vehicles so planes and controllers will be able to tell where launch vehicles and spacecraft are in real time. And our Dr. Shafag Jafer and Dr. Keith Garfield are developing modeling and simulation tools and capabilities that apply to everything from the electric power grid to computational tutoring agents. Finally, our Dr. Massood Towhidnejad is director of the NEAR (Next-Generation Embry-Riddle Advanced Research) Lab, through which numerous members of our faculty work on FAA NextGen projects ranging from integration of unmanned aircraft to making it possible for flights on intercontinental routes to talk digitally to both American and European flight controllers.
Our students participate with students from other College of Engineering programs in the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) competitions, including the RobotX boat for which ERAU was one of a handful of teams selected to compete. We have students, including the electrical lead, involved in EcoCAR. Our students attend and present papers and compete at IEEE and AIAA conventions. Also, Dr. Jafer and Dr. Garfield are spearheading our efforts to reach out to young women and turn them on to engineering and computing careers. We got ERAU to join the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s Academic Alliance, and we host an awards ceremony to celebrate the performance of young high-school women in computing courses. We also send a group of our students each year to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
We’ve just relocated to the third floor of the Lehman Building, and we’re looking forward to new opportunities like a radome on the Lehman roof for better investigating radar. We’ll have a new improved lab for student projects. And there will be a cool cybersecurity lab on the Lehman first floor. So we are very excited about what’s happening with our programs.