Jeremy Blum: Inspirational Engineering

First recipient of IEEE-USA New Faces of Engineering Award, College Edition

4 May 2012

IEEE Student Member Jeremy Blum has two life goals: to develop devices that improve people’s lives and to change the world through engineering.

Blum, who turns 22 this month, has already done more toward those goals than people three times his age. In the past few years, he has designed robotic devices, organized projects on sustainable living, lectured about engineering at high school summer programs, created a series of online tutorials in electronics, consulted for start-up companies, and helped create new curricula for his university.

His involvement in all those activities has earned the Cornell University electrical and computer engineering student recognition as one of the New Faces of Engineering. The award, administered by the National Engineers Week Foundation, highlights the achievements of selected engineers younger than 30. Named by IEEE-USA, Blum was among 15 recipients of the college edition of the awards representing as many engineering societies. Each society nominated one candidate. The students, announced during eWeek in February, were honored for academic excellence, leadership in student organizations, outstanding communication skills, non-engineering-related community service, and participation in the engineering industry.

Blum says he was moved by the honor: “I often get so caught up in all my projects that I forget to step back and see how much of an impact they can make. Receiving this award reminded me that the work I am doing is positively affecting people and making a difference that people can recognize.”

Perhaps Blum’s most popular invention, described in several media reports, is the SudoGlove. The sensor-embedded glove can wirelessly direct a variety of devices such as remote-controlled cars [shown in photo below] and computers. The glove works more intuitively than a traditional remote control, Blum says. Its sensors detect finger flexing, force and orientation, as well as vibrations. That data goes to a microcontroller, which processes the information and transmits signals to the receiving device (pretty much anything you can stick a transceiver on, Blum says) via a 2.4-gigahertz wireless XBee radio. He has used the glove to synthesize music, working with music students on a performance by a glove-controlled synthesizer. Sensors on each finger corresponded to virtual guitar, flute, and piano notes on the synthesizer.

Photo: Jeremy Blum

Blum is planning to build a new, more compact version this summer that he says will sport more sensors and a more pleasing design. He’s also working at the Cornell Creative Machines Lab, where he helps design biologically inspired robots.

One project, Machine Metabolism, involves a 12.7-centimeter x 35.6-cm x 10.2-cm programmable device that can shimmy along scaffolding girders, bend in half to climb at right angles, then detach and reassemble girders. The robot mimics the metabolic process of an enzyme latching onto and reconfiguring a protein into a different shape and function. Future possible applications include international space station repair, improved construction safety, and autonomous skyscraper building. Blum and his fellow researchers wrote a paper on the project that is slated to appear in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine.

Among Blum’s proudest accomplishments is his cofounding and directing of the Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD) team—250 students who work on projects they both design and build. The students are currently planning a sustainable neighborhood in Nicaragua to be constructed in the summer of 2013. The 30 homes will require minimal energy to run, Blum says, and the team plans to keep construction costs down by enlisting the eventual occupants to help build their homes. The plan is for the residents to then share their new construction knowledge with nearby communities.

CUSD’s first project, last summer involved working with several nonprofit organizations to build a schoolhouse and teacher training center for the South African community of Cosmo City.

Guided by 20 faculty advisors, the CUSD team is developing an interdisciplinary research facility on the Cornell campus to design and test sustainable engineering and architectural building projects such as geothermal heating systems, solar electrical and solar thermal systems, efficient lighting, and anaerobic digesters that make energy from food waste.

“This program has us working with people outside our disciplines with totally different subject knowledge, and we’ve developed effective ways to work together,” he says. “Everyone coming out of our team has the skills to work with different points of view—which is a really valuable perspective,” Blum says.

Blum began tinkering with electronics kits at the age of 7, started reading about robotics at 10, and was building computers at 12. His interest in electronics and robotics grew in high school. He says his business sense came from his father, who is in advertising; his blog and video production writing from his mother, a marketing consultant; and his science drive from one of his grandmothers, a biology professor.

Blum applied to Cornell, planning to study mechanical engineering. He switched to electrical engineering when he realized he wanted to learn more EE theory and could pick up mechanical engineering skills through robotics projects. He says he plans to stay on at Cornell for a master’s degree in EE, with a focus on robotics and sustainable design.

He is continuing his consulting and teaching work this summer. He says he’ll be working for a New York City start-up, MakerBot Industries, and will teach high school summer classes at Bluestamp Engineering, an enrichment program for aspiring engineers who design and build an electromechanical project.

Blum also has a YouTube channel where he posts engineering tutorials that include explanations of amplifiers, analog signals, and how to upgrade laptop RAM.

“I started posting the videos because it was fun,” he says. “But people have contacted me to say I’ve inspired them to become engineers.”

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