Part of the engineering mindset is seeing what looks like a roadblock as a challenge to figure out.

Stewart Thomas

As a kid in rural Arkansas, Stewart Thomas would marvel at the John Deere tractor as he rode around the family farm. He wasn’t so much attracted to the big tires or the loud rumble of the engine — he was fascinated with the GPS navigation that helped determine the proper amount of fertilizer to be used in each section of the vast field.

“Here we were out in the middle of nowhere, and it was getting data from somewhere. I couldn’t see it, so I didn’t understand then,” recalls Thomas, a professor of electrical & computer engineering. “It blew my mind, and I remember just wanting to know how it was possible to receive that information from space.”

That childhood curiosity would eventually evolve into an academic career. Thomas’ professional work centers on the intersection of low-level basic computing and wireless communication devices — specifically, creating smaller and more dispersed computing and sensing devices, such as cameras and iPhones, by examining ways to track data without the use of batteries or other replaceable power sources.

For instance, the tiny RFID (radio frequency identification) chips Thomas designs can be installed in hard hats to improve safety and prevent accidents, or mounted to the backs of dragonflies to collect data on their flight patterns.

The problem-solving mindset of a scientist also sparked Thomas to develop an interest in teaching. As a teaching assistant in grad school, he leapt at the opportunity to teach an introductory electrical engineering class for non-majors. Faced with students who had little sustained interest in the subject matter, Thomas quickly decided he would focus on making the course fun and interactive while providing students with basic skills about circuit analysis. Along the way, he fell in love with teaching as a profession.

“Everyone else hated teaching that class,” he says. “But I think part of the engineering mindset is seeing what looks like a roadblock as a challenge to figure out. I just looked at bringing the topic to life for students as another challenge.

“My eyes were opened to this whole other world. I’m not so much teaching as trying to help guide students along. We’re all trying to learn together.”

Posted September 2018