Spotlight Iowa City: Fun with robots and engineering

BY MORGAN OLSEN | MARCH 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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Most University of Iowa engineering students would be surprised to know their electrical and computer engineering professor, Er-Wei Bai, doesn’t have a high-school degree.

Bai, a man who is continually smiling and tinkering with homemade motors and robots, becomes more serious when he talks about the 14 years he spent in a factory, when he should have been in high school.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, high schools and universities were closed to students, leaving the then 15-year-old Bai without a formal education. Unlike many of his friends, he studied mathematical textbooks in his free time, learning the material on his own.

“My dad compares my life in America with his life growing up in Shanghai a lot,” said Bai’s son, Henri. “I realize how spoiled I am to have all these opportunities and how hard my dad had to work for the same things.”

Only a junior-high student when he started work in the large Shanghai factory, Bai eventually advanced to a technician and then to an engineering position.

“Looking back, we had fun as teenagers. We didn’t care about politics,” he said. “It didn’t feel tough at the time — it was a way of life.”

As the revolution resolved and education became available, many workers didn’t return to school, choosing to continue working in the factory industry.

“I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I wasn’t settled down for a life [in the factory],” he said.

Today, the energetic professor crowds his office with small gray and black robots, boxes of tiny magnetic motors, and his students’ work, which he will show to anyone who walks past his door.

“Look, this one is a frog,” said Bai, crouching down on the floor to program the robotic frog to hop across the floor.

Whether he’s teaching freshmen or graduate students, he has the same method.

“No one memorizes the details of every class; I hope my students walk away knowing how to solve problems,” Bai said.

To do this, he tries to make the learning experience exciting and hands-on. One of his most interactive assignments is having first-year students create and program robots to sneak into a “tomb” modeled after the one in an Indiana Jones movie to steal a treasure.

“He starts some of his lesson plans six months in advance,” said engineering Associate Professor Gary Christensen, Bai’s colleague and friend of 13 years. “Anytime he gets a new idea, he’ll run down the hall and show us all what he’s done.”

His latest idea came from a PBS show on oragami. Next semester, he will have students practice the art of paper folding to learn more about mathematical equations and geometry.

“Steps and processes are very important in engineering,” said Bai, paging through one of his new oragami books. “I have to think of ways to make boring material more exciting so students want to learn it.”

He stopped at a page on how to make a turtle from a single sheet of paper, noting the creature would take 51 steps to complete.

The state Board of Regents recognized Bai for such creative approaches to engineering last year with an award for faculty excellence. The professor was one of just six UI faculty members given the award.

“It’s an honor,” Bai said, pointing at the award mounted on a wall near his desk. “Engineering and teamwork can be hard to teach — but I want my students to have fun learning about it.”

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