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Junior: Summer Research

posted Jul 15, 2013, 11:34 PM by Sean M. Messenger   [ updated Dec 30, 2013, 5:50 PM ]
This will be a big update (unlike the last one). Taylor and I are still pursuing the double major, registered for courses next semester, and are enjoying being busy (believe it or not). In my last update, I mentioned some of the courses I was taking. I'll summarize those first, and then get into what I am doing currently and finally my plans for next semester. Again, if you would like to receive email updates when I (infrequently) post or update here, please fill this form. And as a final preface, I was recently featured as a "Passionate...Tahoma High grad" in the Maple Valley/Covington Reporter.


My classes for this past semester were, 
  • Experimental Engineering (E80)
  • Applied Math for Engineering (E72)
  • Autonomous Robot Navigation (E190Q)
  • Advanced Problems in Engineering (E191)
  • Data Structures and Program Development (CS 70)
  • Principles of Macroeconomics (ECON 53)
  • Introduction to Philosophy (PHIL 90)
  • Fencing (PE 222)
E72 was a blast and probably one of my favorite courses I have taken. The problems were very realistic applications of mathematics to engineering scenarios. They included optimizing tension in a zip line, modeling temperature dissipation in heat sinks for cooling computer chips, determining equilibria and stability in nonlinear systems, and modeling the vibration modes of a wing on a flying airplane as a system of forced linear differential equations. I enjoyed seeing how the principles learned throughout Core Math could be applied in interesting ways in the real world. The most spectacular thing about this course (similar to my perception of Mudd courses in general) is that it wasn't taught to reinforce "solving differential equations for trusses," or anything specific. We hit, very briefly, on a large variety of in-depth topics that stretched our ability to apply past knowledge, learn or recall what we don't remember, and help others come to the same conclusion. This was a great course with a curriculum that should be more prevalent in general education. 

E190Q was Professor Clark's new course on robotics. This course used four Jaguar Lite robots as a black-boxed platform for code development. The course concentrated on experimental opportunities in the form of tangible products. For example, we had deadlines roughly every other week for some functional implementation of a new, pre-determined algorithm. These deadlines also required a technical report on the experiment, and these were held to high standards. The experiments involved programming autonomous navigation to a given point, localization in a known environment, and a final competition of efficient navigation. My research during the semester was with Professor Clark, and much of it overlapped with this course. During the semester, I was developing and implementing the algorithms in the course and extending them beyond the scope of the class for my research. Between this course and E72, I pulled all-nighters nearly every Thursday night (both classes had deadlines on Friday).

My experience in E80 is summarized on my project page for that course, Odysseus: Mach Rocket. As an added note, we had three rocket launches as part of the course. We had to get up early (6 AM) on Saturdays to head out to the desert for these launches. In many cases, as a combination of E72 and E190Q, very little sleep was had Thursday night. Add to that a 3 hour lab session for E80 doing experiments and getting technical reports turned in, and additionally finishing up preparations for the rocket launches (read: making significant components of the rocket on Friday nights) and I very rarely got any sleep after Thursday morning and before Saturday night. If you get Taylor, Chris Hirlinger, Chris Miro and me in a room together -- for your own sake, don't joke about sleep deprivation. No sleep, hot desert, gunpowder, and high-powered explosives is not a good combination.

E191 was the research I was doing with Professor Clark outside of class. I took it for credit and got a grade, unlike my research last Fall.

CS 70 was a very intensive experience coding with partners. The hardest part of this course was working out schedules between myself and my partner. Most of the time we had similar schedules (I partnered with Taylor for a third of the course) but other times my partner was in entirely different courses. The material was very interesting, we covered lots of algorithms, and got first hand experience working with classes, inheritance, data structures, and coding practice. I feel like this course is the cornerstone of Computer Science, much in the same way as E80 is the pinnacle of experimental engineering. 

ECON 53 was a great course to take with Professor Evans. He knows his stuff, teaches to those who want to learn, and I came away with a much greater understanding of the economy. 

PHIL 90 was my slacker class -- that is, I thought it would be interesting but I just never got into it. This was my second semester of the year and I could pass fail one humanities course per year, so I decided to do that on this course. I decided I would rather not be stressed out about my grade in this course and would be more inclined to put time into my other courses. Everything we went over in this course seemed fairly common sense, or an abstraction of the common to the point where nothing we were discussing seemed to have any application or significance.

This was probably my last semester fencing. I took the club and class because I was still interested in it, though the President graduated this year and it doesn't seem anyone else is going to pick up the ball. It's a shame, because I really enjoyed participating, but I don't have the time to keep it going myself. I am involved in too many other things to add something else to my plate (and that is saying a lot).


Last February, I applied for and won/got accepted for an academic program and award called the Robert Day Scholars. This program is about preparing students for management and leadership in their field, whatever that field may be. It is through Claremont McKenna College's (CMC) Robert Day School of Economics and Finance. The Robert Day Scholars are accepted from any of the 5 Claremont Colleges and are given access to the Robert Day School's Masters program and courses, counselors, and resources. Additionally, it comes with a $15,000 scholarship in my senior year. I am the only Mudder in my class to receive the honor, though Vijay Ramakrishnan received it and is a grade above me. A few other Mudders a grade above him received it. In general, CMC students get accepted and Mudders are a "rare and valuable sight" according to some Scholars. 

I am excited about this opportunity to take courses through the Robert Day School, meet new people, get networking opportunities with a wide variety of professionals, and develop my skills. I can't wait to see what the program has in store for me.


I have been working this past school year as a proctor in the machine shop. This means I supervise non-proctors that come to machine parts for a class, research project, or clinic project. The biggest job we have is helping E4 students make their hammers. Anyway, there were about 40 shop proctors during the year at any one time, two Head Shop Proctors (HSPs) managing everyone, and then several faculty overseeing everything. Towards the end of the year, the HSPs sent out an application to apply for HSP next year. I applied because I felt like there were a variety of things that needed improving, I am interested and enjoy helping others in the shop, and feel like I am one of the few most knowledgeable students in the machine shop at Mudd. In short, James Best (who was the Associate Head Shop Proctor last year) and Jason Bluhm were chosen as HSPs for next year and I was invited on board as Associate Head Shop Proctor to learn the ropes, contribute, and prepare to be HSP my senior year. This comes with a pay raise and more responsibilities, all of which I welcomed. 

Taylor and I had been very active pushing for shop reform (cleanliness, organization, and most importantly proper training for the shop proctors) prior to this selection. He did not apply, but wanted to help improve the shop as well. We petitioned for the school to pay for professional training of a few experienced and dedicated shop proctors, with the intent of these individuals training the rest of the crew for next semester. The engineering department responded with an offer to train with the school machinist, Paul Stovall, on a weekly basis over the course of the summer. Paul was developing a curriculum to have all proctors go through, and is now trying it out on us. We are learning a lot in the process, will be able to teach others, and are giving feedback on what is effective or needs improvement.

Finally, after a chance run-in with Dean Jacobsen (Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Students) outside the machine shop, I offered to help him make a hammer (what all engineering students make in E4). As Dean, he has heard many students complain about the time for this project and has always wanted to make one himself. I offered to help him make one if he wanted, he asked if he could invite another professor, then Taylor and I got excited and went around inviting everyone we thought would be interested. When we got a good number of professors and a few proctors, we proposed the idea to the engineering department. They approved, and we decided to try and capture the experience on camera. We are thinking of using this opportunity to make new safety and training videos that are more engaging (what is more entertaining than watching professors you know screw up "obvious" things? At least the students will enjoy watching it, and are less likely to make the same mistakes). Taylor, Jason, and I are putting in about 4 hours each per week working with professors. We are also remaking a hammer of our own to go over the process again. Fun times in the shop.


I also applied to be a tutor in Mudd's Academic Excellence program. The program has tutors for every Core class, and I applied to tutor for the one Core Engineering course, E59 Introduction to Engineering Systems. Despite not doing as well in this course as I had hoped, I found the material very interesting, very applicable, and very important. I saw students struggling to grasp basic concepts and felt I could help explain the material, help them understand it better, and in the process establish a strong foundation in these basic principles for myself. I am excited to work with the professors in deciding where the course will go and helping students through what is currently perceived as the most arduous Core class.


Partially as a result of my desire to double major and partially because I am already staying on campus for research over the summer, I decided to take some summer courses. Pitzer College has a summer program where professors from all of the 5C's can offer courses (exclusively humanities courses). There was one that I was really interested in, and a second that caught my attention. I signed up for and got into both. The first is Professor Steinberg's Public Speaking for Social Change course. This was basically a chance to practice different presentatian techniques, get experience presenting in front of an audience, and learn about effective supporting material. This course was fantastic. The second course was Professor Dyson's 2012: Prophecy, Apocalypse where we studied a variety of mainstream religions, old religions, and new age religions. Particular emphasis in this religious studies course was given to the similarity or dissimilarity in end-time scenarios. 

Both of these courses had almost exclusively Mudders in them (they were both about 9 Mudders and 1 non-Mudder). They were regular, full-length semester courses taught concurrently in a 6-week period. In this way, each 3-hour class period (met three times a week) turned out to be equivalent in workload and homework to a normal, full week during the school year. Whew. Five of these weeks overlapped with my summer research work, so I was very busy juggling two otherwise full-time "jobs." I ended up acing the public speaking course, and getting a decent grade in the religious studies course. Considering how split my time was, and how many other students in summer courses were only taking one or didn't have a research position, I consider that a big success. That's also two fewer classes I have to take down the road to graduate.


Now, the big update. This is my summer internship, so to speak. Instead of apprenticing or working at some company over the summer, I am staying on campus and working on a project with Professor Clark. We had planned this before winter break, at which time I turned down an interview with Sandia National Labs for a summer internship. I am not regretting my choice. 

I had a single week "off" between semester finals and the start of research, the the summer classes started right away. The research period is 10 weeks, and I am working in the Lab for Autonomous and Intelligent Robotics (LAIR) on a localization problem in robotics. My project is described briefly on the LAIR Projects page (Lava Tube Exploration). More specifically, we have four students on the team. Two (myself and Sam Yim) are working directly from the LAIR and two (Katherine Yang and Alberto Ruiz) are working under Professor Lyzenga with the Physics Department. Also on the physics side is Mike Storrie-Lombardi from the Kinohi Institute. Sam is working on a way to get the robot to build a map of its environment from just driving around inside caves and lava tubes (using Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, or SLAM). I am working on getting the robot to know where it is inside its environment given a map, laser scan, and control feedback (i.e., encoders on the wheels). Katherine and Alberto's work is described on the projects page. 

I just finished implementing a particle filter localization algorithm that is robust enough to work in rough environments. My work uses a map that we construct beforehand (i.e., we draw what the cave looks like and tell the robot "This is the lava tube you are in. Find out where you are."). The end goal is to have this use Sam's map so we can send the rover into unknown environments and have it be able to efficiently navigate and explore searching for signs of life. We are looking at working with NASA on the project after we get all facets finished. 

We have made three trips to the desert (where it has consistently broken 100 degrees and requires off-roading and some trekking across sharp basalt rocks with heavy equipment) to see the site and test algorithms and instruments. Here are some pictures of the expeditions.

We are looking at the possibility of getting one or two publications out of this project, which would be a big deal. Normally, work like this is done in graduate schools by graduate students. I am glad to have this opportunity as an undergraduate. It is very rare for a student to apply to graduate school with their name on even one publication, let alone having several or being the primary author of one. I am looking at the possibility of both getting several publications this year alone, and maybe being a primary author depending on what we submit the paper for.

I am also working after-hours with two of Professor Clark's old students from Princeton to publish their thesis. They wrote up an algorithm and want to publish it, but need to refine the presentation and simplify the explanation. They additionally want to implement it on a real robotic system, which is where I come in. It is looking like I will work with them to refactor their algorithm and then implement it on the Jaguar Lite platforms we have in the LAIR. This project may also end in my name on a publication.


Professor Clark brought the LAIR with him when he came to Mudd. That is, he brought the equipment, the robots, a significant amount of funding, and contacts. All of the students in the LAIR are Mudders, and we have about 13 people in the lab. I have been working with the lab's outreach efforts, edit the lab website, and talk to prospective students about robotics at Mudd. 


After some drama getting into Engineering Clinic (which I won't discuss here), my courses for next semester are:
  • Continuum Mechanics (ENGR 083)
  • Electronic and Magnetic Circuits and Devices (ENGR 084)
  • Advanced Systems Engineering (ENGR 101)
  • Engineering Clinic (ENGR 111)
  • Engineering Seminar (ENGR 121)
  • Microprocessor-Based Systems: Design and Applications (ENGR 155)
  • Computer Science Colloquium (CS 195)
  • Accounting for Decision Making (ECON 086)
That comes out to a busy semester of 19.0 credits, me working two jobs, and holding a research position. Whew. Here we go again.