University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Things Are Percolating in M5

In M5 (short for Marcus Hall, room 5), the student hub for hands-on inventiveness in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, innovation is happening faster than an electrical signal jumping a human synapse gap. In M5, change is standard operating procedure. One symbol of the innovation in progress is the antique pump organ centrally located in M5 as it waits to be mechanically restored and electronically synthesized by a team of faculty and students. Another change is the installation of the campus chapter of IEEE, which has been relocated in a high-profile, windowed office where students can find it easily. And a third alteration is the permanent configuration of electronic test equipment in a room that supports the freshman Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering course and also all the individual projects being worked on throughout the department.

M5 consists of about a dozen rooms chockablock with circuits, chips, parts, voltmeters, power supplies, oscilloscopes, audio/video equipment, microcontrollers, and many other things near and dear to the hearts of engineers. It’s a place, as one faculty member once joked, where electrical and computer engineering students can “do their Rube Goldberg thing.”

One such thing is the baroquely decorated pump organ or harmonium, a type of reed organ that generates sound with foot-pumped bellows, now residing in M5 and waiting for a midlife makeover. Several million reed organs were made in the U.S. between the 1850s and the 1920s. Charles Malloch, a lecturer in the ECE department and a musician who plays the folk fiddle and other instruments, is the person in charge of restoring the pump organ. Malloch says that the keyboard on a pump organ is called a manual, and above the keyboard are a series of knobs, or stops, which connect the keyboard to one or more sets of reeds. By pulling or pushing these stops, the organ player can produce a variety of different sounds. However, the stops in this old instrument are either nonfunctional or poorly functional, and the bellows leaks.

“What I’d like to do is fix it up as much as seems reasonable,” said Malloch. “I’d love to fix the leaky bellows and tune up those stops that are still working. And then those stops that aren’t working at all, we’re going to connect to synthesizers. So we would be skipping an entire generation of organs and incorporating modern technology.”

As Malloch foresees the restoration of this organ, an arduino single-board microcontroller can be used as a synthesizer, which could be powered by batteries, so aspects of the instrument would be electric, but the keyboard would still be manually operated, and the bellows would still be pedal-powered. In other words, you would still be able to play the organ in the way that it was originally designed. Or you could use the stops connected to synthesizers to get entirely new sounds out of it.

“What kind of sounds can you get from this organ with synthesizers?” said Malloch. “In a word, dazzling! They won’t be new sounds that you’ve never heard before. But they would be the kinds of sounds that are featured in any electric organ or piano that you buy today.”

The goal of this project is really to get students interested in taking the back off this pump organ and examining the technology of more than 100 years ago to see “how advanced we were in pneumatics and valves and things way back when,” as Malloch noted. “We want to get students who are electrical engineers interested in mechanical stuff as well. We don’t want any of our students to be a one-trick pony. As we get further and further advanced as a culture technologically, the people who are going to be most in demand are engineers with knowledge of a variety of topics. Nobody builds a purely mechanical system, or purely electrical system, or purely hydraulic system. Everything is integrated.”

Malloch added that “It would be easy enough to gut this organ, put a generator on the pedals, put a synthesizer inside, and stick some speakers somewhere. But to me that takes a lot of the romance out of the project.”

Aptly enough, the pump organ happens to be sitting right outside the campus chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which has been resituated in M5 this year and is busy raising money so the chapter can sponsor educational events and projects for engineering students.One fundraiser of our IEEE chapter is an annual event for all the faculty, students, and staff in which they all get together, eat food, play trivia, and enjoy good company. Another is the annual ECE faculty-student poker tournament, which was just held.

“The students and faculty get together, play some poker, have a good time,” said IEEE chapter vice chair Andrew Sousa. “It’s nice. It builds a sense of community within the department.”

Melissa Lau is the chair of the IEEE chapter, which has between 25 to 30 students.

“The UMass IEEE student branch has a dynamic branch with an office in a prize location within M5,” said Professor Baird Soules, the ECE’s undergraduate program director. “It did have a windowless space, and they asked to move over here, in a very public space with a window, where the activities can be publicized easily.”

Beyond sponsoring a trip to the huge Maker Faire invention exhibit last September, the UMass IEEE chapter is also fielding a Micromouse team this year. The Micromouse competition involves building a little robotic mouse that can navigate a 16- by-16-foot maze. In this contest the teams of contestants each design and build an autonomous robotic "mouse" that features integrated mechanical and electrical design and autonomously negotiates a maze of standard dimensions, with the fastest Mircomouse to the center winning. The Micromouse competition begins at the Northeast regional IEEE conference, and the best teams advance to the annual international conference.

Soules, the faculty member who runs M5, is especially excited about his room full of electronic test equipment, which will support the labs for all 175 first-year students who take the required Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering course. The test equipment will also prove invaluable for every student doing an independent project, or the teams of seniors doing their final capstone projects.

“Now we’ve made a commitment to have a permanent configuration of six tables full of identical electronic test equipment,” Soules explained, “so that anyone from ECE can come in here at any time and work on his or her electronics project.”

Each table has a standard set of test equipment, including a signal source for different waves called a function generator and two types of equipment for measuring voltage signals, called the oscilloscope, and the digital multimeter.

“Any electronic project they might be working on, they can come in here and check out their design to see if it’s working,” Soules noted. “That could be for course-related projects, it could be their own independent projects, or it could be for senior capstone projects. It supports the whole ECE community.”

The same might be said for M5 itself, which is the electronic proving grounds for myriad inventions, reinventions, and innovations being conceived, designed, and concocted by our best and brightest ECE students. (December 2013)