Introducing Lab Coordinator Casey Smith
ECE lab courses are always among student favorites. Freshman-year courses like ECE 110, for instance, allow students to work on interactive projects out of the gate, almost as soon as they walk in on the first day, backpacks loaded and notebooks ready.
Those opportunities continue throughout the next four years (and even into graduate school), providing the time and equipment needed to put theory into practice and turn ideas into designs.
All of these lab courses, regardless of their specific focus, now have at least one thing in common: Casey Smith (MSEE ’01), the department’s new instructional lab coordinator. Smith joined the department in July and now oversees the equipment in the teaching workspaces, ensuring that students will have the resources needed to create and innovate. He will also work with instructors as they develop new laboratory-based exercises.
Given the timing, Smith’s initial emphasis has been on the department’s transition from Everitt Lab—the instructional home base for more than six decades—into the new ECE Building, which has more than 20 teaching laboratories. His first weeks were spent in Everitt, packing the labs and the Electronic Services Shop, and now, workbenches in the new building are being prepped for classes. (Click here to see photos of ECE ILLINOIS' move from Everitt Lab to the ECE Building.)
“That’s pretty much everyone’s focus right now, just the nuts and bolts of helping move,” Smith said recently, while unpacking equipment in the Electronic Systems Lab on the fourth floor of the new building.
While the move means that Smith’s first weeks have been especially fast-paced, it also provides a unique opportunity to rethink some of the equipment setups. Many of the labs will resemble their corollaries in Everitt, at least in terms of equipment, yet at the same time, the spaces are essentially blank slates. Smith can collaborate with the instructors, optimizing the layouts and determining the best equipment to have on hand.
“There are a lot of opportunities to make things better for the students,” Smith said. “Everything is new.”
As a graduate student in the department, Smith worked with ECE faculty members Lippold Haken and Ricardo Uribe, designing hardware for the Haken Continuum Keyboard. Smith, accordingly, is quite familiar with the previous laboratories in Everitt, and he is excited to see several unprecedented spaces in the new building. One of these is the Open Projects Lab, an expansive workspace on the second floor that will provide freedom for students to pursue non-assigned, independent projects.
“It seems like the department is focusing more and more on practical applications of our knowledge, and that is really exciting to me,” Smith said. “The building seems to reflect that message because they have these nice open lab spaces, and ECE 110, which is a terrific course, has this museum showcase down there in the atrium [in the Texas Instruments Electronics Design Lab].”
Smith also has professional experience in a university research setting. After completing his graduate degree, he worked at the University of Chicago Engineering Center, as a research engineer in the Department of Astrophysics, where they were developing large balloon-borne particle detectors. That project involved a significant number students—an experience that will serve him well at ECE ILLINOIS.
“Being back in an academic environment is a really nice opportunity for me,” Smith said. “I really enjoyed the time that I spent at the University of Chicago, just being involved with the research. ... And that had a large undergraduate component, so I would always be working with students.”
Smith subsequently spent four years with Opal Kelly, an Oregon-based hardware company founded by Jake Janovetz (MSEE ’01), a friend from graduate school. That offered an insider’s view of the product-development cycle that many laboratory courses try to replicate—the process of taking an idea through the engineering cycle several times, refining a prototype, ramping up production, and ultimately creating a successful young company.
“The nice thing about an academic environment is you choose your own adventure. You have a lot of opportunities,” Smith said. He was referring to his experience as a professional, yet the message also holds true for students. In the laboratories, possibilities abound. Students have the equipment, the space, the liberty of exploration, and in the end, those hands-on learning experiences shape the engineers of tomorrow.