9 July 2024

We couldn’t have done this anywhere else in the world, says electrical engineer and technical education enthusiast Todd Freeborn

Originally from Calgary, Todd Freeborn describes himself as a passionately Canadian human being. | Autor: Václav Koníček
In contrast to an average Czech student, American students may never leave their country, state, or even their hometown to study internationally. Aiming to change the status quo is electrical engineer Todd Freeborn who’s brought another group of students from the University of Alabama to the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Communication (FEEC) at Brno University of Technology (BUT) to spend their summer working with Czech experts on advancing fractional-order circuits and systems while enhancing their intercultural understanding.

From Calgary to Alabama and Brno

Originally from Calgary, Todd Freeborn describes himself as a passionately Canadian human being. “I struggle to not tell someone I'm Canadian. Within about five minutes of meeting me, you usually will know because I've said something about it.” Similar to the nine students he brought to Brno, he had never dreamt of leaving his hometown until he became exposed to the ideas of international research and transitioned to work at the University of Alabama where he’s been a professor for the last nine years. And it wasn’t his last international experience.

He first became connected with BUT in 2016. Back then, the cooperation was mainly on the level of joint papers and research until an idea for an internationalization project came about. The National Science Foundation, which funds this project, has a specific mission and money for what they call ‘international research experiences for students’ which perfectly fit with my idea of doing a fractional order circuits research here.”

Fractional Order Circuits

BUT itself became a huge selling point: “BUT has such a unique focus on the fractional area that they're the world leaders in using these topics and advancing them.” And so all the pieces fell into place at the right time. He appreciates that the university has an entire team at the Department of Telecommunications dedicated to the subject. “There are posters in the hallways that have these topics. The students see them, know that they're contributing, and it's normalized that everyone knows these topics here. I say, we couldn’t have done this anywhere else in the world.”

The project deals with fractional order circuits and systems, which are integral to everyday items such as cell phones, cars, and household appliances. A unique aspect of this research is the application of fractional calculus, an older branch of mathematics. While traditionally theoretical and abstract, this math provides innovative ways to approach and solve engineering problems. “We're interested in designing circuits that use this mathematics in ways that haven't been thought about before, that maybe give a unique and more flexible approach,” Freeborn explains.

Autor: Václav Koníček

Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

One of Freeborn’s primary objectives is to inspire students to pursue graduate studies and research careers. “While I’m really focusing on fractional order circuits, my real goal is to try and make them think of themselves as researchers and to pursue higher learning,” he admits. By introducing students to research early, he wants to expand their career perspectives beyond immediate industry roles. “I entice them with ‘intellectually seductive’ problems. These problems are incredible to solve, and it's really exciting for the students and for me in my role to solve a problem that no one else has done.”

Freeborn feels that the earlier this inspiration takes place, the better. "I also run programs that are about outreach to students when they're still in high school or middle school to connect these ideas to them." He emphasizes the importance of enabling students to envision their futures, especially those who lack exposure to engineering careers in their personal lives. "When a student can't dream about their future, those options are closed down to them," he notes.

Freeborn’s own research focuses on applying advanced mathematical principles, such as fractional calculus, to biomedical focused problems with the aim of improving healthcare – specifically problems with joints and muscle tissue, such as osteoarthritis. “As an engineer, I'm trying to figure out what are the questions I want to solve and working on applications that have direct health benefits to people is incredibly motivating and inspiring to me.”

This hands-on experience also allows him to better promote engineering to young people by showing them its ability to help solve real problems in their communities. “I can ask them how many of you have a parent or a grandparent whose knees hurt? Do you want to do something about it? Let's talk about what an engineer can do for them. Let's build some circuits."

Navigating Different Educational Systems

When Freeborn moved to the United States to work at the University of Alabama where he was able to utilise his expertise from both research and industry, he found he had to adjust his expectations when it came to the system of higher education as the syllabus is much broader yet more general for undergraduates in the U. S. “My experience from Calgary was that the curriculum was very direct, very engineering-focused and there was a strong push to master all your technical material early. But I do love that the students in the U.S. get a much wider view at the beginning – I think that’s incredible.”

As far as the Czech Republic, he was shocked to discover students have to take oral exams. “My students would panic if I told them they have to stand in front of their professors and explain your answer. We’ve never used that in any university system I’ve been in, be it Canada or the U.S., for assessment.” He also likes that students get to resit their tests and exams at BUT. “I actually love the approach here that you can try and not be successful and improve and try again, because you're not a failure by not getting it the first time, you have an opportunity to continue to grow and address it.”

Autor: Václav Koníček

The importance of international experience

Experiencing international environments is fundamental for improving students' communication skills according to Freeborn. They challenge them to look at material they know from a different perspective. "I encourage them to be better communicators because how do you talk to your mentors, who are experts in English but don't have the same level of slang?”

Many students he mentors have never even left the United States, which makes these international opportunities pivotal in their development. "They have to work internationally, they have to learn what that's like. Many of the students have never left the United States.”

He makes sure the project isn’t just technical-focused. The students are encouraged to explore Brno and immerse themselves in Czech culture. “I force all the students to take Duolingo lessons, so when we at least get here, they know some basic words, sounds, phrases and can understand what’s happening. We also take them to museums, historical sights and other cities like Prague and Lednice.”

Freeborn hopes that the project will continue in some way. “We hope to see it grow, because it’s been such a wonderful time here. I keep joking that I’ll keep bringing more students here, because it’s such a good experience for everyone involved.”


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