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Math Clinic Puts Theory to Practice

CLAREMONT, CA.—Teledyne Microelectronics needed a better way to market its light-emitting diode panel displays for military and commercial aircraft and vehicles. So last year it asked a team of applied mathematics students from Harvey Mudd College to design and build the computer, drive, electronics and software for such a demonstrator. "We've very satisfied," explained Richard Davis, an engineer with the Torrance, Calif., company. "They did an excellent job." The demonstrator, which can b

By | March 9, 1987

CLAREMONT, CA.—Teledyne Microelectronics needed a better way to market its light-emitting diode panel displays for military and commercial aircraft and vehicles. So last year it asked a team of applied mathematics students from Harvey Mudd College to design and build the computer, drive, electronics and software for such a demonstrator.

"We've very satisfied," explained Richard Davis, an engineer with the Torrance, Calif., company. "They did an excellent job." The demonstrator, which can be operated by a salesperson, is something "we probably wouldn't have done ourselves," Davis added.

The cooperative effort was a product of the Claremont Mathematics Clinic, created in 1973 by Harvey Mudd and The Claremont Graduate School to strengthen their applied math curricula and to help solve some of the problems facing area companies and organizations. Since then the clinic has worked with 30 clients, many of them more than once, and has generated $1.5 million in revenues.

The $27,000 contribution from each client finances a team that consists typically of six undergraduate students, a graduate-student team leader, a faculty supervisor and a liaison from the company.

The Dos and Don'ts

In January 125 scientists from academia and industry gathered here for a conference sponsored by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. The participants, representing institutions from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia that have adopted programs similar to Claremont's, discussed the dos and don'ts of successful joint ventures.

"The greatest direct benefit of collaboration, of course, is that problems are solved," said Dale Larson, a scientist with Chevron Oil Field Research Company in La Habra, Calif. "But you also get new direction and new ideas."

Industrial firms are looking for expertise that they can afford, explained Robert Borrelli, director of the math clinic at Harvey Mudd. They also see it as a good way to recruit: almost every student on the teams he has supervised, Borrelli said, has been offered a job after the project was completed.

Dragan Ilic, director of the high-speed devices laboratory for Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif., said he enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of working with San Jose State University students on a semiconductor project. "In a company, you are inbred—the same old ideas circulate. Having an outside sanity check is very important. Hewlett-Packard probably could have done it on its own," he added, "but it would have cost us much more."

Ilic offered a word of advice. "If you need a quick and focused solution," he said, "then university collaboration is not the answer. Teaching takes time."

But time is not the only obstacle to a successful collaborative effort. When officials in southern California's Pomona Valley wanted to know if nitrates from fertilizers and septic tanks posed a threat to local well water, they turned for help to Harvey Mudd. Students created a computer program for the area water district to estimate future concentrations of nitrates based on the number of existing septic tanks and farms and developed software to plot contours of nitrate concentration levels, a complicated model using differential equations, free-boundary problems and fluid mechanics.

The programs helped officials maintain the quality of the water supply—for awhile. "It worked fine," recalls Richard Hansen, general manager for the Three Valleys Water District. "It certainly was beneficial." But staff turnover and a new computer system ended its usefulness, and the district hasn't used the students' programs for the past five years.

Interrupted Pieces

Then there are the practical issues of selecting a project that can work. "Don't set up impossible problems that will result in high frustration levels for all involved," warned Martin Buehler, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "Often you have to break things down into smaller pieces."

Institutions must remember that the team members are, first and foremost, students. "You have to operate almost on an 'interrupt' basis," Buehler said about the inevitable delays in progress. In addition to his or her normal course load, a student may spend as much as 20 hours a week on the project.

Other approaches allow students to devote more time to their project. The University of Waterloo (Ontario), for example, operates a cooperative math clinic in which students spend one semester on campus and the following semester at the work site. In France, doctoral students work full-time at the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation after completing their qualifying courses.

Regardless of the approach taken, successful programs require close collaboration between universities and their clients. "You need weekly meetings," said Teledyne's Davis. "You need to keep the goals in sight at all times, with review points along the way. And sometimes, in the middle of it all, we find we have to change directions."

Schools in areas saturated with high-tech companies have a fairly easy time finding clients once contacts have been made and reputations established. But not everyone is blessed with a Silicon Valley as a neighbor. Robert Chapman, a math professor at the University of Guelph (Ontario), suggested that universities "focus on the particular strengths of your institution and be prepared for a good deal of legwork."

Rob Gould is a senior at Harvey Mudd majoring in applied math. He is working with General Dynamics in Pomona on the design of neural networks for an artificial intelligence system that can recognize edge-enhanced outlines with a 20-degree variance. In addition to the knowledge he has gained, he has learned to prepare and give oral reports and to work as part of a team.

"It's a neat experience," he said. "You find you can do things you never knew you could do."

Riordan is a freelance writer in San Marino, Calif.

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