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Q&A with Nate Delson

As Director of UC San Diego's Mechanical Engineering Design Center, Nate Delson believes in project-based learning and teaches students how to construct myriad contraptions—from robots and clocks to medical devices. An alumnus of UC San Diego, Delson received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and then went on to get a doctorate in mechanical engineering from MIT. Since he returned to UC San Diego in 1999, his introductory design course has been in demand, with student enrollment more than doubled in the last decade. One of Delson's group projects will be featured at UC San Diego's 50th anniversary Innovation Day Expo on Feb. 25. In this interview, he talks about the innovation that will be showcased and what lured him back to UC San Diego.

What do you enjoy most about building and creating, and have you always been an innovator?

Delson: I grew up with an interest in building things, but my early ideas took forever to build and did not work too well. One thing I enjoy about design today is the opportunities that the Internet, combined with rapid prototyping technology, open up. One can think of an idea on a morning jog, find parts and guidance on the Internet by the afternoon, and put together a simple prototype a few days later.

How did your undergraduate years at UC San Diego prepare you for your life and career?

Delson: At UC San Diego, I felt that I really learned solid engineering science that I combined with an internship and independent study to put theory and practice together. College, of course, is a formative experience in many other ways. I enjoyed Revelle College and its breadth of requirements (even thought I got Cs in humanities), and continued non-engineering courses in graduate school when I had the chance. I met my wife here and created fond memories that pulled us both back here as faculty.

How far has robotics come in the last 50 years and what is the future of robotics?

Delson: As with many technologies, some areas advance quicker than expected, while others advance more slowly but may have a larger impact in the long run. One area that has advanced slowly is robotic manipulation of physical devices. I use the example of opening a finicky lock with a key which, 50 years ago, one would have thought was a trivial task that machines should be able to tackle by now. Yet today, robots cannot perform these types of tasks, while humans can accomplish them with ease through use of our neural pathways and fine motor skills, developed largely subconsciously. In my lab, we have begun to study these skills by adding sensors to surgical tools and taking measurements from physicians performing medical procedures. In the field as a whole, a greater appreciation has developed for how nature uses a large number of sensors and actuators combined with robust control approaches. There is currently extremely rapid advancement in computer and sensor technology. When actuation and control technology catch up, the advancement in robotic manipulation will be significant. The overall future of robotics and automation is part of the global context of technology. Will automation be used in negative ways, such as low-cost rockets guided by GPS-enabled cell phones to terrorize a population? Or will the technology be used to create prosperity that dampens the calls for extremism? I think these are primary challenges of our generation.

What will your group exhibit at the 50th anniversary Innovation Day Expo and Symposia?

Delson: It is a collaborative project with Dr. Randolph Hastings from the Department of Anesthesiology in the School of Medicine, developed together with numerous engineering and medical students. We will display an instrumented mannequin of the head and neck for training physicians and first responders how to insert a breathing tube using a device called the laryngoscope. As the trainee guides a laryngoscope through the mouth and throat, they are provided real-time feedback on an LCD screen based upon numerous measurements made while expert anesthesiologists performed the procedure. Our approach has been to create a tubular region of expert motion, where the radius of the tube provides an indication of how critical positioning is at various portions of the task. This approach automatically captures the subconscious manipulation skills of the experts along with their adaptation to patient anatomy, while allowing for acceptable variation.

How has the university evolved since you were a student here?

Delson: It has been 25 years since I completed my bachelor's degree at UC San Diego. I remember one of the few mechanical engineering student organizations was the Human Powered Vehicle Group, which I think had three active members and sawed two bicycles in half to create a recumbent bicycle. The year I graduated was the second year when seniors worked on real-world design projects. Since then, there has been tremendous growth in the number of opportunities our undergraduates have for hands-on design projects. The growth in student organizations also has been exponential. There are now student-run projects with airplanes, submarines, race cars and environmental projects. There are university-coordinated internships and a Teams In Engineering Service program where students work on long-term projects with nonprofits including global projects in developing countries.

In addition to having fond memories of UC San Diego, why else did you want to work here?

Delson: I was excited about the opportunity to build a stronger relationship between the university and local industry. San Diego has such a diverse range of industry and research institutions, and the potential for synergy was underutilized. One course I especially like to teach is our capstone design class, MAE156, where student teams work with industry and research sponsors. We have 40 projects a year with sponsors ranging from biotech to environmental. In 1986, at my first engineering job in Sorrento Valley, the vice president of engineering's first comment to me was "I didn't know UCSD had an engineering department." Indeed, at the time, UC San Diego's reputation was very much on the theory side. It is nice to know that today, at our 50th anniversary, UC San Diego has built upon its strong theoretical foundation and added a strong and growing applied component.

Why is project-based learning important for students and what are some of the interesting projects you've worked on with students or colleagues?

Delson: I am a big proponent of project-based learning and that students learn so much when they become engaged in a meaningful project. I am also a big believer in learning to walk before you run, and that students become engaged in projects when they are provided interesting challenges and skills to meet these challenges. The design curriculum in our department follows this approach. I teach an introductory design course, MAE3, which started in 1999 with 80 students, and now has over 200 students twice a year. In this class, students start with an individual project where they use a Computer Aided Design program and a rapid prototyping machine to build a functioning pendulum clock. Then they work in teams on a head-to-head robot competition that we hold in the main gym during finals week. This large hands-on class is only possible due to the amazing engineering staff we have in our department and our undergraduate tutors who take leadership roles in mentoring students and sharing their passion for design. At the senior level, I teach a mechanical engineering capstone design course where student teams work on real-world design projects. The range of projects is especially broad. Students have developed toys for children with disabilities, underwater devices for ocean monitoring, medical devices for measuring the heartbeat of premature babies and controlling the radiation dosage for cancer treatment. Students are currently working on a project for fish farming in rural Cameroon in partnership with a non-governmental organization that operates in Africa. Industry and government sponsors have included HP, Intel, Qualcomm, Nokia, Sony, SPAWAR, the U.S. Navy, and numerous biotech companies and startups. We are fortunate to have engineering staff who are extremely dedicated to student learning, and we would not be able to do these projects without Nick Busan, Chris Cassidy, Tom Chalfant, David Lischer, Steve Roberts and Mike Watson. For me personally, it is an incredibly fun class to teach; I get to learn about a wide range of projects and to see how much pride our students take in their work and their high level of accomplishments. I feel fortunate to be able to participate and contribute to our student growth.


 
 Fun Faves
 

Favorite part of your job:
Working with students in small groups.

Favorite place at UC San Diego: Behind the Canyon Vista cafeteria where you can work in a quiet environment overlooking a canyon.

Favorite place on Earth:
Mammoth Mountain, the Eastern Sierras and the Negev dessert.

Favorite hobby:
Snowboarding, backpacking, yoga and spending time with family.

Favorite innovation:
Pumpless solar water heaters.

Favorite part of being a UCSD alumnus:
Bumping into old classmates since moving back to San Diego.

Favorite television show:
"Seinfeld"

Favorite words to live by:
"You can't predict the future but if you are curious about things you encounter and explore them deeper, sooner or later you will use what you learn." (Written by Nate Delson)