A Candid Conversation with Brad Minch

On Star Wars, stained glass, and integrated circuit design.

Brad Minch is one of Olin’s best respected professors. The son of two mathematicians, Minch earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and his PhD in Computational Neural Systems from CalTech.

He came back to the Northeast for a teaching position at Cornell, where he won an award for dedicated and inspirational teaching, and a year later, came to teach at Olin.

Walking into his office, I found myself in a clearly creative area; soldering irons and microchips, interspersed with paper planes, Legos, and origami flowers covered the table and desk, and full bookcases bisected the room.

He joked that the mess was supposed to be contained to one side, but it had leaked out- but a clearer space would not have yielded nearly so animated an interview. As we spoke, he picked up circuit components, drew diagrams on the whiteboard, and threw paper planes of his own design.

FRANKLY: What can you tell me about your time at Cornell?

MINCH: I really, really loved teaching. That was where I put my time and effort at Cornell. I had a research program; I had grad students, and I enjoyed working with them very much, but I didn’t build out my research empire in the way that some of my colleagues did.

I do get to do some research here, although it seems to have to fit in the cracks and crevices of time during the semester. I try to get more of it done during the breaks.

It’s something which I still enjoy doing; even at Cornell, when I had grad students, I always maintained my own lab bench. I like to be in the lab myself.

FRANKLY: What’s your teaching philosophy for Circuits?

MINCH: I’m striving to help students to develop an intuition for how circuits work, and an ability to help students reason qualitatively, rather than just taking a circuit from a big book, writing down a matrix of equations, and solving for the answer.

The types of circuit analysis that we do falls into the category of design-oriented analysis.

It’s basically techniques that result in (a) some insight of how the circuit is working, and (b) the answers are sometimes approximate, but they’re simple enough to inform your design process, as opposed to these equations of alphabet soup where you really can’t tell how each of the component values contributes to the overall answer and if you want to change something, what you can tweak to make it the most effective.

Integrated circuit design is my research specialization, and my observation with trends in the semiconductor industry is that power consumption is getting lower and lower and power supply voltages are shrinking, and those two things together are pushing us into a region of transistor operation that traditionally is not covered, especially in introductory courses.

Most of the textbooks in the world don’t cover it.

That’s one of the things that’s very different about the way that I teach the Circuits class: when we talk about these types of transistors, we cover the device in a way that uniformly treats all levels of inversion.

If I wanted to pick a textbook for the class, I really couldn’t, because there’s just nothing out there that covers the material in the way that I’d like to cover it.

FRANKLY: What do you use, then?

MINCH: At the moment, I’ve been using notes I’ve been writing, and those are little sections of what I’m hoping will become a book.

Next year, I’m on developmental leave for the fall semester. The biggest problem with it is that at the moment, it’s kind of a jumble; I don’t have a clear story through it.

I have to figure out while this semester’s still in session what my tack is going to be. But I’m really delighted to be able to have a semester to work on it.

When I write, I tend to mull it over in my head and pace the floor for a long time, and then I sit down and I just start writing. Typically, I don’t go through many revisions.

I’m hoping that I can count the last ten years or so as the pacing the floor and mulling it over, and I can sit down and just start going, and out will pop a book or at least a draft of a book.

I’ll be teaching the Circuits class in the spring, and I’m hoping I can test drive it on the students in that class.

FRANKLY: You also teach PoE, right?

MINCH: The class I’ve taught most often is Principles of Engineering. It’s probably the most ambiguous title for a course that I know of. The course was named before I got here, and it was offered the first time my first semester here.

It was taught at that point in different flavors; there was a mechanical flavor that was offered by Jon Stolk, and an ECE flavor that was offered by me.

It became apparent on the second time around, when five students dropped the class on the first day when they found out what flavor was being offered, that the notion of offering different flavors based on who was available to teach it was maybe not the best approach.

So I proposed that we make it uniform and interdisciplinary, so that’s when we picked up the mechatronics theme.

FRANKLY: What was it like before?

MINCH: In the MechE flavor of the course, it was simple statically loaded machines designed for a customer: professors, something for the shop, or some other person in the Olin community.

The ECE version of the class was that all the students designed a low-speed USB peripheral.

I picked that because I had an interest in learning more about USB. It seemed to be a cool thing if you’re an ECE type to say “I designed a USB peripheral that I can plug into my computer and play video games with.”

FRANKLY: Do you do mechatronics projects on your own?

MINCH: I’m not much of a mechanical engineer, so my mechanical design is fairly limited, but at one point I built one of these arcade controllers myself, and that involved some woodshop skills, and I’m currently working on a light saber, which has been on hold for almost a year.

It’s going to be quite nice when it’s all done. That involved learning SolidWorks, and using the rapid prototyping machine we’ve got here, and the lathe.

It’s basically a fancy LED flashlight with some sampled sound and an accelerometer.

You can actually buy these things. But if you are into the Star Wars universe, all of the light sabers are individually handmade by the jedi, so it doesn’t seem right to buy one from a company.

I’ve got a bet with a student who’s a senior right now. He hasn’t quite finished his PoE project from sophomore year, so I ask him, “Where’s your PoE project” and he says, “I’ll finish if you finish your light saber.” So I’m like, “You’re on!”

So now I suppose I have to push for some semblance of a finished product ready before commencement, or else he’ll graduate without doing the second revision of his PoE project, which I’d really like to see. Maybe over spring break.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me about this Lego airplane on your shelf?

MINCH: My wife and I are into Legos, so we had a collection of Star Wars logos when they first started making them, and my son plays with them and his own.

I have two sons. One is nine, and the other is seven. One is very extroverted, a social butterfly, very athletic. The other is not so extroverted.

They both like video games. They both like Mario. They beat me at just about any Mario game. I just don’t have what it takes anymore.

FRANKLY: Your faculty bio mentions stained glass. Do you do that regularly?

MINCH: That’s something that my wife and I took up as a hobby when we first moved to Ithaca. We’d drive past this little stained glass shop, and we wondered how much it would cost to have them do a window.

They offered classes, so it was like, for that kind of money, we could learn how to do it ourselves.

So we took some classes and got a few hundred dollars into having a setup at home. Then having kids around the house kind of put a stop to that.

It’s been a while since I did it, but it’s fun. Our kids aren’t really in danger of picking things up off the floor and eating them anymore, so maybe we’ll get back to it sooner rather than later.

FRANKLY: Would you consider teaching a co-curricular in it?

MINCH: We certainly have some soldering irons lying around. Maybe I’ll think about doing that next time I’m in the position to offer a co-curricular. It would give me an excuse to get back into it.