First-class engineers

Distinguished Professor Geoffrey Fox served as the first chair of the Department of Intelligent Systems Engineering and was instrumental in providing credibility for the program. A world-renowned researcher, having Fox leading the program through its infancy helped give ISE a rudder.

“Without him, ISE would not have materialized,” says Raj Acharya, IU’s associate vice president for research and AI innovation and the dean of the Luddy School from 2016-20. “Geoffrey initiated and built the ISE program from scratch and is responsible for providing the intellectual and creative kernel of the ISE program.”

Fox defers the credit for building the program in the early days to those around him.

“We need to thank the dedicated work of the many people who worked on the curriculum and the mentoring activities that allowed ISE to grow,” Fox says.

One of those who worked on the curriculum was Professor Martin Swany, who succeeded Fox as the chair of ISE in 2018.

“We had a very specific direction we wanted to go with the teaching, and we had a pretty good idea of what the first two years were going to look like before the students arrived,” Swany says. “We tweaked it constantly, but the basic shape of it being computing-centric the first two years has been the same. We knew what we wanted to teach and how we wanted to teach it. We just needed people to teach it to.”

The students would come from all over. The initial class of intelligent systems engineering students would number 25—a tick less than half would move to other majors, which isn’t unusual for incoming freshmen or for the engineering field—but the 13 who make up the Class of 2020 discovered the program in a variety of ways.

It was clear at the beginning this program was designed to put students at graduation at the cutting edge of intelligent systems in whatever form that took.

Aidan Whelan

IU and the Luddy School provided the tangible resources for the program to grow, from classrooms to laboratories to equipment to spectacular Luddy Hall, which opened in Spring 2018. But the most important resource for the students was each other.

Mhatre came to Luddy with little in the way of a science background. He knew nothing about programming computers. At a school where he was surrounded by people who had been working with computers for years, it chipped away at his confidence a bit.

His classmates built him back up.

“I didn’t know what a terminal was,” Mhatre says. “I didn’t know what a command line was. Those are basic things. After labs, I would ask my classmates to stay behind for 10 or 15 minutes to help me with those concepts. That wasn’t easy for me. I’m an international student, so communication wasn’t always smooth. But my classmates helped me, and they pushed me along to the point that I began to understand the concepts a lot better.”

Samy leaned heavily on his classmates, too. A world-class swimmer—he finished 16th in the 50-meter backstroke swimming for Egypt at the 2019 FINA World Championships—Samy earned All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors all four of his years with the Hoosiers. He had Olympic aspirations for Tokyo in 2020 before the games were postponed.

Navigating the challenge of earning an undergraduate degree is difficult for any student. Being a student-athlete provides an extra layer to the equation. Throw in the fact the ISE program was new, and Samy needed help.

“Swimming takes up a lot of time,” Samy says. “There are practices and meets and lifts, and when I looked at my schedule, I knew it was going to be really hard to get around to everything. I needed some people to lean on, and that really helped. I asked the ISE community if they could share notes and help out. Someone was always willing to step up. It wasn’t about people telling me the answers. It was about helping with the concepts.”

The family feel of the program grew organically. The ISE students were taking the same classes, and the project-based nature of a lot of the work meant tight bonds were formed. That also meant the competitive streak that runs through more established engineering programs was non-existent.

“Every single one of us wants everyone else to succeed,” Cantor says. “That’s really unique. Not everyone has a super supportive, collaborative environment that we have at Luddy. Maddie, Jackie, and I went to the Society of Women Engineers conference and the Grace Hopper conference, and I spent time in between sessions running to interviews. They provided a lot of support, and it was incredible.”

The bonds continued outside the realm of engineering. A group of students took a Russian class together. Movie nights were organized. A bonfire at Lake Monroe brought students closer together. It also gave students the opportunity to talk about their experience in classes.

Martin Swany headshot

You don’t want it to be too hard so they can’t succeed, but you want it to be challenging because if it’s too easy, then it’s worthless.

Martin Swany

The freshman year of the program saw the basics introduced. For the students’ sophomore year, the level of difficulty was ratcheted up substantially.

Nearly every member of the Class of 2020 admits they toyed with the idea of leaving the program at one point or another. Whether it was a crisis of confidence or just feeling they were being pushed too hard, one-by-one, the ISE students were starting to feel some pressure. Talking to one another helped. Talking to faculty and staff helped even more.

“As a group, we got together and said, ‘We can sit here and complain about how things are being laid out, but if we don’t’ tell them, they can’t make a change,’ ” Tugman says.

A regular meeting was organized to discuss the coursework, giving students and faculty an opportunity to discuss how things were going.

“There were times when it felt like we were laying track in front of the train,” Swany says. “We iterated on it a lot. When talking to them about the difficulty of the classes, there was a balance. You don’t want it to be too hard so they can’t succeed, but you want it to be challenging because if it’s too easy, then it’s worthless. And there were times when we had to say, ‘Yeah, it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard.’ But they were participants in the process.”

The meetings made a difference. One professor added unofficial discussion sessions to help the students. Tweaks were made for future cohorts to avoid scheduling too many overly rigorous classes in the same semester. Other bumps were smoothed out or, more importantly, explained.

Regardless of whether changes were made, the fact the program was willing to listen to the students made an impact.

Students having fun around a campfire“I mean, we kind of joke in our class—and I don’t mean this in a bad way—that we were kind of the perpetual guinea pigs when it comes to this program,” Whelan says. “But it was a unique opportunity and responsibility to give feedback and give our thoughts on when something works and doesn't work. Our ISE classes were being taught for the first time with us. No one can be expected to get it 100 percent right the first time every time. There were some things that maybe on paper seemed like they should work just fine, but in practice, maybe didn't quite work out the way that they were planned.

“There were really great opportunities that the administration provided for students to get together, bring an issue to administrators, and collaborate on a resolution. It has been very constructive.”

It also added to the weight of what they were accomplishing as the first group.

“They’re pioneers,” Acharya says. “Amidst all the adversity, they had to survive. The thing about engineering is the yield of engineering after the first couple of years is very, very low. It's just a very hard field. You have to be good at physics. You have to be good at mathematics. You have to be good at computing. It's not easy to be good at all of these sorts of things, and you have to have a flair for applications of these sorts of techniques you learn. Many students do not realize when they come into engineering what it's all about.

“Adjustments were being made while the courses were being developed—some while they were being taught. Faculty were being hired. It was a constant state of flux. But that comes with a great reward, and that’s flexibility. This group is versatile and can deal with anything.”

That fact isn’t lost on anyone in the ISE Class of 2020. Ali, for instance, spent the summer following his junior year as a production intern at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” How would an intelligent systems engineering student fit on a television show, you ask? You aren’t the only one.

“That question came up in my interview,” Ali says. “I said, ‘We solve problems.’ In engineering, you’re literally solving problems, complex problems, with calculus, physics, all those things. And that's how I can be of help. I look at any given situation and say, ‘How can we find a way around this, and how can we stay positive and find the solution, find an efficient and effective solution?’ They liked that. I feel like the skills that we learned here can be applied anywhere.”

Youngs believes learning how to adapt helped her prepare for medical school.

“We learned along the way to identify what was working and what wasn’t working,” Youngs says. “We separated the concepts of ‘This is really hard’ from ‘This is really valuable for the future.’ We learned to look past difficulty and see the benefit. It has allowed us to tango with the upper limit. We’ve seen what the max of our ability feels like.”

Kelly Nelson is the director of ISE student services and curriculum. She has seen students come and go in the ISE program, and her feelings for the Class of 2020 borders on maternal.

“I feel so fortunate to have been part of this group’s four years at IU,” Nelson says. “Given the size of the cohort, we were able to really get to know the students and watch them grow. They definitely built a family within ISE, and it carried over into how we act as a department. We all started together. We all took a risk together. We all supported each other. And ultimately, we all grew and learned from each other.”

The Class of 2020 has also enjoyed the unique position of seeing their legacy emerge in real-time. The bumpy path the group had to forge in ISE has become paved for those behind them. There is no jealousy of the relatively easier journey the juniors, sophomores, and freshmen in the ISE program have enjoyed so far. There is only pride about what their class has accomplished.

“We’ve talked about this as a group at times,” Whelan says. “We’ve seen how the program has changed and how the changes we’ve been a part of have propagated through the rest of the classes. I don’t think anybody is focused on having themselves remembered as individuals, but everyone is conscious of leaving a constructive mark on the program.”

Cantor has served as a resident assistant in Luddy’s Living-Learning Center, giving her a first-hand view of how her class has impacted those who have followed.

“I've really gotten to kind of watch them and kind of see how the curriculum has totally changed,” Cantor says. “Even looking at the junior class and the classes they took and the way their classes are structured was, in some cases, night-and-day from what we did. So that's been really cool to see.”

Nelson says the impact has extended beyond other ISE students.

“This group’s legacy is what they left with all of the people they met along the way,” Nelson says. “They inspired their teachers and mentored their younger peers. They built a path to other disciplines within IU Bloomington at large. They encouraged each other and learned how they each played a special role within their cohort. There were moments of frustration and worry, but the students focused on their values and turned these concerns into opportunities. They saw the chance to help shape the program and use their feedback to make improvements for the future.”

The seniors also have enjoyed seeing the promise of intelligent systems engineering move from vision to reality. What was once described as concepts—the idea of embedded systems or sensors, the very notion of the Internet of Things—has become an everyday reality. Students find themselves graduating while sitting on the cutting edge of the technology they’ve been taught

“(The administration of the ISE program) did what they wanted to do,” Clarke says. “They wanted to mix the hardware and software components, and just be able to produce people who can have a full range of knowledge from the really low-level hardware stuff all the way up to machine learning and pretty advanced software. Honestly, I think they pretty much hit that goal.”

Ali agrees.

“When we came in, they kept giving us the notion of the Internet of Things with devices everywhere,” Ali says. “Now, we’re taking a class where we’re working with the national forest on the dark sky project, and we’re actually making devices. We’re seeing the technology and skills being used already, and we haven’t gotten into the workplace yet. There will be self-driving vehicles and self-delivery robots. We’re working on all the behind-the-scenes things that will make that a reality.

“The idea of intelligent systems engineering was really brought home to me when in a class, the professor said we’re using great resources, but you have to have intelligent people who know how to make these things run efficiently and effectively. That’s where I really thought, ‘That’s what we’re really doing here.’ ”

We learned along the way to identify what was working and what wasn’t working. We separated the concepts of ‘This is really hard’ from ‘This is really valuable for the future.

Jackie Youngs

However, they also understand their achievement won’t exclusively be their own.

“It's exciting not just for me, but for my classmates, the staff we've worked with for four years, the Luddy school, and several members of the faculty who will be excited to see IU finally push off in this direction,” Krzesniak says. “The fact that I can share the excitement and revel in our achievement together conjures a sense of community that will always be a part of us. I can carry this throughout my whole life, and that is rather exciting to me.”

To the end, IU’s ISE Class of 2020, along with the rest of the student body, were asked to be flexible. The COVID-19 outbreak that has changed our world also has changed Indiana University. Graduation ceremonies are postponed, celebrations moved to the virtual realm. Labs are closed. Students are home. Classes are online. The camaraderie that has been the hallmark of the ISE program and especially the senior class has been upset, but for a group that has made a college career of rolling with whatever was put in front of them, one more obstacle isn’t a reason to panic.

Again, flexibility is everything with this group.

“It has been an interesting journey,” Swany says. “I’m really glad to have those guys as participants riding along. I also think they’re pretty happy with the program. We’re at that moment with them, the moment we’ve been thinking about for over four years—our first ISE graduating class. I’ve told the provost in the past that I was hoping the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t a train, and it’s not. I think they are great. They’re a bunch of special kids, and we’re going to miss them.”