EGR53: Computational Methods in Engineering

June 1, 2006
Michael Gustafson

Michael Gustafson

A required introductory course in the Pratt School of Engineering, EGR53 is aimed at equipping first-year students with the problem-solving tools they'll need for subsequent courses in engineering. The challenge the professor faces is how to take more than 300 first-year students, teach them a new computing language, offer them a glimpse into four different paths of engineering, and supply them with basic skills, all while maintaining Pratt's vision of a "bold, personal, and interdisciplinary" education.

That challenge has been met by professor Michael Gustafson, who worked with three colleagues--Rebecca A. Simmons, W. Neal Simmons, and Lianne Cartee--to create a course that would not only give students the strong technical skills they'll need to become qualified engineers, but also provide a rewarding learning experience.

Students are introduced to the programming language MATLAB, which, Gustafson says, allows users to go beyond basic computer programming to solve problems in math, physics, and engineering. Taking advantage of MATLAB's flexibility, students have been able to "generate and measure electrical signals, play games, record and alter sounds, and calibrate measurement devices." They have written solutions to Sudoku number puzzles and generated complex, geometric patterns known as "fractal trees."

Without MATLAB, students are limited to writing programs that "look pretty on the screen, but can do nothing," Gustafson says. "I really enjoy seeing how [students] take what we give them in class and then go running off in so many different directions."

Gustafson says students should come away with "the ability to transform an open-ended challenge into a series of problems for which they can use a program like MATLAB, and the numerical techniques learned in the course, to generate and present data that will help them ascertain possible solutions to both the individual problems and the overall challenge." Beyond that, he says he hopes that his students will gain strong fundamental skills "that will propel [them] into leading roles in their chosen fields."


Michael Gustafson B.S.E. '93, M.S. '98, Ph.D. '99 began working as a lab teaching assistant for EGR53 in 1996, and was appointed assistant professor of the practice in electrical and computer engineering in 2005. His focus is on developing and improving the first- and second-year undergraduate curriculum, so that students are equipped with strong laboratory and computer skills. Gustafson's research interests include linear and nonlinear control systems.


Steven Chapra, Applied Numerical Methods with MATLAB for Engineers and Scientists
William Palm, Introduction to MATLAB 7 for Engineers




Three Quizzes
Group and individual Labs