Friday, August 12, 2011

First a computer lab. Then an intercontinental collaboration.

That’s the hope of two computer science and engineering professors who chanced upon a technology need in Ethiopia and set about filling the void.

Addis Ababa Institute of Technology professors
Fitsum Assamenew, Michael Anbessei and
Daniel Dilbin in the new computer lab.
A state-of-the-art computer lab is open for learning at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology in Ethiopia, thanks to a pair of computer science and engineering professors who work to attract bright graduate students to Michigan even while they’re on vacation.

During a trip to Africa in 2009, Valeria Bertacco and Todd Austin visited what was then known as Addis Ababa University to give a talk about Michigan Engineering.

“Wherever we go, I try to recruit students,” said Bertacco, who is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

On this trip, not only did she find Biruk Mammo, who is working in her lab now as a doctoral student, they uncovered a pipeline of enthusiastic computer scientists and engineers. New government incentives to educate more engineers in Ethiopia have led to a leap in the number of young people there going into the field, Mammo said.

But Bertacco and Austin noticed that the university didn’t always have the best educational tools.

Valeria Bertacco gives a talk during a
vacation to Ethiopia in 2009.
“Their classrooms were mostly blackboard and book-based and the computer labs were overcrowded” Bertacco said.

“We know that students learn best when they have adequate resources to do actual programming and logic design, and work with microprocessors,” added Austin, a professor in Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The professors set out to change that. They reached out to industry and even into their own pockets to set up a lab that opened just this summer. The semiconductor firm Xilinx donated “field-programmable gate array boards,” which are reconfigurable integrated circuits used in digital design classes. Visual computing technology firm Nvidia donated “Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) boards” for parallel programming courses and research.

Intel provided some computers and the two professors purchased others from the college’s Computer-Aided Engineering Network to establish a modern 25-machine computer lab where undergraduates can work on computer engineering projects.

“I shipped about 1,000 pounds of equipment,” Bertacco said.

And in the winter 2012 semester, Bertacco and Austin will spend sabbaticals there, continuing their work on establishing collaborations with the university.

“We expect to be recruiting a lot of great students in the years to come,” Austin said.

For his part, Mammo plans to go back to Ethiopia to work after he graduates, thus strengthening the ties so that more African students like him can work to, in his words, “combine simple devices like transistors and logic gates to create something magnificent.”

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