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Improving Design Through Research and Teaching

Graduate student Philip Asare (ECE ’15) helps students
taking the Real-Time Systems course perfect their design
for a robotic vehicle.

For graduate student Philip Asare (ECE ’15), the fascination of engineering lies less with discovery than with the process of discovery. He views engineering not so much as an end but as an activity. “When most people think about engineering, they think about the product,” he says. “I think about how it gets made and how it affects people.”

Asare has selected a research topic that melds this philosophical approach with a practical goal. He is working with Professors John Lach and Jack Stankovic, co-directors of the Center for Wireless Health, which develops wearable monitors that enable medical professionals to assess health more accurately. For these devices to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they must be safe, but as of yet there is no commonly accepted way to translate the medical injunction “do no harm” into specific design parameters. Asare is devising design tools — mathematical models — that can be used with these devices to do exactly that.

In essence, Asare is trying to insert a precise, understandable concept of safety into the engineering process. “A lot of my time has been spent coming up with an adequate definition of safety so that the FDA, which regulates these devices, and the manufacturers who want to produce them, have a common understanding,” he says. Lach feels that Asare’s work has the potential to create uniform standards for these emerging products. “Having a shared concept of safety — and a design tool that embodies the way this vision of safety would work in a complex, dynamic system — is critical to advancing the field,” he says.

Asare’s penchant for understanding engineering processes in their larger context led him last summer to secure funding from the Engineering School to attend Science Outside the Lab, a 10-day policy workshop organized by Arizona State University’s Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes, in Washington, D.C. The program is aimed at doctoral students interested in how decisions about public science funding, regulation and policy are made at the federal level. “Understanding this particular process is important to me because as a graduate student working on a faculty grant and as a potential faculty member, I’m part of the system,” he says. “I’m also interested because it is my ultimate intention to return to Ghana and help develop a sustainable education and science policy so we can tackle our own social problems.”

In the final analysis, Asare sees engineering as a humanist enterprise, a perspective that inspires his dedication to teaching and outreach. To hone his skills as a teacher, he took part in the Engineering School’s Graduate Teaching Internship Program, which gives students considering an academic career the opportunity to develop and co-teach a course with experienced faculty mentors. Here again, he emphasized process. “I tried to encourage students to think through engineering problems before they begin implementation,” he says.

Asare also participates in summer programs for high school students organized by the School’s Center for Diversity and has even visited a second-grade classroom to explain engineering. “I enjoyed the challenge of trying to think about engineering on their terms,” he says. “And they sent me a wonderful thank-you card.”