1. Introduction to Data Analysis and ToolsΒΆ

This course is an introduction to numerical computing, data analysis, and visualization with emphasis on the use of software tools to model, analyze, and solve a variety of science and engineering problems. This course uses software tools commonly used by professional engineers to teach applied problem solving skills and familiarity with programming, data analysis, and visualization.

Basically, this class is about how engineers can use computers to their best advantage. Of course, computers have capabilities that appeal to everyone; but towards the field of engineering, the primary appeal of computers is their fast numerical processing capabilities and the ability to visually display data. But computers have strict rules about how they are programmed to perform the specific calculations that we need. However, that does not mean that effective engineers have to also be computer scientists. A few software development environments have become particularly popular with engineers. These environments provide the resources that allow users with limited programming experience to quickly solve a variety of numerical computation problems and plot data in various ways to help users visualize and understand their data. Modern software tools for engineers are not yet able to relax the strict rules of programming, but they can accomplish some amazing things with just a few lines of code. The primary software tool that we will use is MATLAB from The MathWorks, Inc. We will also briefly explore the capabilities of LabVIEW from National Instruments and spread sheets, such as Microsoft Excel.

At the end of the semester, students will be able to, perhaps with some effort, lean on a computer for help in solving engineering problems and producing plots to display data in meaningful ways. This knowledge can be a valuable tool in engineering courses and as a professional engineer. Think of the material in this class in the same way that you think of long division. I’m glad that I learned how to do long division in elementary school. But when presented with a division problem, I either do a rough estimate in my head or I reach for a calculator. I seldom use pencil and paper to do long division. This class can teach you how to make use of computers to solve engineering problems rather than pencil, paper, or even a hand held calculator. In doing so, you will be able to work quickly, accurately, and produce impressive results.

To reap the benefits of using computers to aide with engineering problem solving, one needs to learn a few simple things about programming and the mathematics of numerical computation. Most of the math that we learn from algebra, trigonometry, and calculus are useful for numerical computation, but they are based on continuous functions. Continuous functions drive us towards analytical techniques as is taught in math classes. Engineers ultimately need numeric solutions, which can sometimes be found using analytical techniques, but not always. To find numeric solutions to the most challenging engineering problems often requires numerical analysis on discrete representations of systems of functions, the application of a branch of mathematics called linear algebra, and computers. Linear algebra is the language of vectors and matrices towards solving systems of equations. The systems that engineers design and analyze are usually defined by systems of linear and differential equations, not a single equation. Our brief foray into linear algebra will be very applied - mostly applied to problem solving, some derivations for purpose of explanation, but no formal proofs.

At the end of the semester, students that put forth a reasonable effort can be productive at using a computer to do engineering work for classes and on the job. This may require searching the Internet or digging into some books for background information, hints, and example programs; but, such resources are readily available. On the realistic side, most students without significant prior programming experience, will not become great programmers by the end of the semester. Nor will they be experts in MATLAB or LabVIEW. Relative to the vast amount of knowledge available, one semester does not provide enough time to become a guru of numerical computation. But the course can certainly provide enough information and experience to add computers to your problem solving toolbox.

Using a computer of solve difficult problems is fun, rewarding, and essential for the modern engineer. Make the most of it and enjoy this very applied and fresh approach to problem solving.