Teaching Electrical Engineering at NJIT: Meet Prof. Stewart Personick

Professor Stewart Personick brings a wealth of experience and novel teaching technologies to his classrooms. His students benefit.

Many NJIT professors bring a wealth of real-world experience to their classrooms, having worked earlier in their careers as scientists or engineers.   And the students are the ones who benefit from their professors’ experience.   

Take, for example, Stewart Personick, a professor of electrical engineering.

Before coming to NJIT, Personick worked for 28 years as a researcher and as a research manager at Bell Laboratories and Bell Communications Research.  At that time, Bell Labs was world famous for its research. His research at Bell Labs first focused on the development of fiber optic communication systems. He later researched emerging telecommunications as well as networking technologies and applications

Personick also worked in industry. For five years, he worked at TRW Inc., a corporation whose engineers worked on integrated circuits, computers, software and systems engineering. He led engineering groups at TRW that worked on telecommunications equipment design and development. He also led research groups for TRW's Technology Research Center.

As a result, he is an internationally recognized expert in the field of telecommunications and networks. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and was awarded the John Tyndall Award in 2000 for his fiber optic’s research.  He earned his bachelor's degree from the City College of New York and his master’s degree and doctorate from MIT.

Three years ago, Personick began teaching at NJIT. He holds a chaired professorship -- he is the Ying Wu Endowed Chair professor -- in the Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering. In his classrooms, he calls upon his work experience to teach students the fundamentals of electrical engineering. He also uses novel teaching technologies – such as what he calls a personal laboratory -- to allow his students to do lab experiments at home.   

In this interview, Personick talks about his passion for electrical engineering, what he learned during the course of his career and what students need to know to grow into innovative engineers.

You had a prominent career in industry before coming to NJIT. Can you talk about your career?
In 1969, after I received my doctorate in electrical engineering, I was invited to join a research team at Bell Laboratories that was studying the possibility of using optical fibers to carry information. The hope was that optical fibers would replace copper wires. The success of fiber optics technology is now self-evident. But then there were huge technical obstacles to overcome, and a great many lessons to be learned about the nature of world-class research and engineering.

During your career, you also managed a lot of engineers, doing research and engineering.  What did that teach you about engineering and engineers?
During my career, I moved from an individual researcher to the head of a research lab with 125 researchers. I also ran a system’s engineering business unit with 200 engineers and $50M of annual revenues. What I learned is that electrical engineering is a rapidly changing field. The underlying technologies are changing rapidly and the types of expertise needed to apply those technologies to create value are changing rapidly.

What do students need to learn to become successful engineers?  
Personally, I believe that 21st century engineers need a different mix of talents than did 20th century engineers. For one thing, the ability to outsource engineering projects to any country that has a supply of traditionally trained engineers means that today's engineers need to see beyond the purely technical aspects of projects. They must be able to participate in multidisciplinary teams that can collectively move quickly to address emerging market opportunities. I try to use my experience to teach my students how technology evolves, how the market drives the evolution of technology and how to recognize emerging technology-based opportunities.

What precisely does it take for a student to develop into a good engineer?
I think that the most important success factor is having a genuine desire to understand what technologies exist; to understand how they work; to understand what their limitations are; and to spend quality time thinking about how those technologies can be applied to create solutions that solve real problems or address real opportunities. The way to understand these things is through a tightly knit combination of classroom learning (or the on-line equivalent) and hands-on experience using technologies to create solutions -- even if those solutions are not new to the world (but are new to the student). Engineering is a creative process and I believe that you don't just watch it being performed or listen to stories about how engineering is performed. You must be an active and engaged participant -- and the earlier, the better.

How has electrical engineering changed over the course of your career?
One of the most important changes in electrical engineering over the last several decades has been the transition to the use of general purpose integrated circuit solutions (I am referring to the digital revolution). When I graduated from City College in 1967, electronic products were made out of expensive individual components like vacuum tubes, transistors, capacitors, etc. Every time a company made another radio or television, it had to purchase and assemble all of those parts. There was much motivation back then to figure out ways to eliminate a few electronic components from each product, or to find less expensive components. That created a demand for a lot of electrical engineers who made a living designing and redesigning special-purpose electronic circuits.

What about today’s technologies?
Today, integrated circuit technology makes it possible to design and sell components that can be used in a variety of products (like the integrated circuits used to make cell phones); and which cost essentially nothing to reproduce. There is no purpose in trying to design an integrated circuit with a few less transistors than one that already exists, and no demand for electrical engineers to do that. The percentage of graduating electrical engineers who will become employed in circuit design is much lower than in the past and the demand for engineers who design circuits is much less. Most of today's electrical engineers are focused on bigger system solutions, often including considerations that go beyond purely technical issues. Engineering is increasingly now a multidisciplinary creative process, rather than a skilled craft.

In your courses, you let students use what you call a personal laboratory – an inexpensive electronic accessory that works with any personal computer -- so that they can do lab experiments at home.  How do they use the personal laboratory?
The use of a personal laboratory allows each student to combine experimentation, which brings theoretical concepts to life, and develops intuition and understanding -- along with classroom learning. This is in contrast with the traditional approach of having separate lecture-type courses and lab courses, often taken in different semesters. With modern technology, students can use compact, low-cost personal laboratories to perform the electrical engineering experiments they’d normally perform in traditional undergraduate electrical engineering labs. The personal laboratory allows students to perform just-in-time (when they are learning about a specific topic) educational lab experiments at their own pace and at times that fit their schedules.  The personal laboratory is compact, light and rugged and all its power comes from your PC.  The students like it. Even some students not in my class have asked if they could audit my class to see how the personal laboratory works. 

Is the personal lab an example of NJIT being in the forefront of engineering education?
NJIT has always served a community of students who have significant financial and time constraints. Some of our students work part time or full time and many commute to their classes. It’s the same at other universities. Therefore, the use of low cost personal laboratories is a concept that is rapidly emerging at a number of leading edge universities that offer undergraduate electrical and computer engineering educational programs. NJIT is at the forefront of universities that are evolving their educational programs to match the evolving needs of students and industry.

Students love to use modern computing and communicating devices for fun and to interact with friends. Does the personal laboratory appeal to students on that level?
Yes. It’s our opportunity and our challenge to design hands-on projects, using personal laboratories that capture students' interests and imaginations. We want to leverage students' current interests in using computers and networks for gaming and social networking.

Where are the job opportunities now for electrical engineers?
Most of today's electrical engineers are working in teams focused on producing large system solutions, often including considerations that go beyond purely technical issues. Engineering is increasingly now a multidisciplinary creative process, rather than a skilled craft.

Can you give some examples of careers or jobs now available to electrical engineers?
Current and emerging opportunities that combine electrical engineering with other disciplines include "smart" power grids and "smart" homes, which optimize the use of energy resources, allow alternative energy sources to be used effectively and encourage energy conservation; applications of new types of patient-monitoring devices, in combination with wireless metropolitan area networks, which provide improved outpatient care and  reduce the cost of healthcare; applications of new sensors, in combination with wireless networks to improve indoor air quality and to provide improved safety and security in office buildings and residences; and "smart" highways and associated automated vehicle control systems that can facilitate smooth traffic flows to save time and to reduce pollution and improve highway safety.

What advice do you have for engineering students? What can they do to give them an edge after they graduate?
My advice is -- and has been for the last 20 years -- thus: Learn to love ambiguity and chaos. Well defined and stable engineering tasks can be easily outsourced.  Engineers who can perform such tasks are not in short supply. However, if the definition of what is needed is rapidly evolving: to meet changing customer requirements, changing regulations, and a changing competitive environment, then the task is much harder to outsource. You can make yourself rarer, and thus increase the demand for your talents, by being able to work well with others in a context of rapid change.

(By Robert Florida, Office of Strategic Communications)