Engineering : student as producer

The Sir Frederick Mappin Building at Sheffield University, which houses the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering. The Machines and Drives Group occupies the left wing of the building

Way back in another millennium, I was a hard up first year undergraduate in Control Engineering at Sheffield University, and overheard a conversation that a disabled PhD student in the Electrical Engineering Department had a grant to pay for a part-time lab technician to build rigs etc. for his research. I presented myself in the Mappin Building (pictured) the next morning at 9.00am, of course the PhD student in question didn’t roll up till mid-day! My first lesson about academia.

Keith Leonard was the PhD researcher in question, and he gave me the job. Now in addition to my degree, I was spending all my spare time building power electronics, data acquisition systems and learning how to programme in assembler and ‘C’ for real time control. I was also (although I didn’t know it then) about to embark on a 16 year association with the Department’s Electrical Machines and Drives Group (EMD). The group had a reputation for working and playing hard, and had risen to being one of the biggest and best of its kind in Europe. This was the turning point for me, I couldn’t believe how exciting research was, and fired me up to set goals to become a researcher.

Of course I still had the business of finishing my degree, and spent the final substantial part of it in one of the EMD labs completing my final year project in Real-Time Fuzzy Logic Control. The important thing here is that Engineering has been doing its own version of ‘student as producer’ for a long, long time. Lecturers tend to be research active, degrees are very ‘hands on’, projects are real-life problems, and funding has historically been there to encourage and retain students into research. I had no idea about the mechanics of research and publishing, so it wasn’t until much later that I realised the significance of my undergrad project and published on it:

Stewart P., Stone D.A. and Fleming P.J. “Design of robust fuzzy-logic control systems by multi-objective evolutionary methods with hardware in the loop” IFAC Journal of Engineering Applications of Artificial Intelligence, Vol.70, no.3, pp.275-284, May 2004.

Keith Leonard strikes a pose at the EMD Research Group fancy dress party in '97

I guess that really is ‘student as producer’. However the real story here is capturing people’s attention and firing their enthusiasm to become active researchers. My story started as an undergrad in Lab D137 in the Mappin Building, a lab which was always my home more than any office became. Chris Bingham (now here at Lincoln as Professor of Energy Conversion in the School of Engineering) joined the group in 1994 from Cranfield, and we started what has turned out to be a very long-standing research collaboration.

Keith never finished his PhD, but he was still an excellent researcher, shame he couldn’t have written his thesis on beer, kebabs and curry. He inspired me, and I wouldn’t be here doing what I do without Keith.

Keith died last week, and we will miss him.

Cheers Keith, RIP, thanks for everything.

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