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NMSU professor tackling capacity issues of communication infrastructure and need for engineers


David Mitchell is tackling two of society’s biggest problems with one ambitious project. The New Mexico State University assistant professor is researching technological methods to increase the world’s rapidly increasing need for expanded communications capacity. At the same time, he hopes to inspire the next generation of students to pursue STEM fields and address the world’s emerging technological needs.

Mitchell, assistant professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, recently received the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award. The CAREER award is one of the most prestigious NSF awards and aims to support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in teaching and research.

“As a society we have a big data problem, in the sense that we are generating data much faster than our communications infrastructure can support. For example, we’re expected to generate more data as a society in the next three years than we have done in the past 30 years. People are generating lots of data in ways that we haven’t ever done before: things like smart homes, connected cars, wearable technologies. All those devices are driving this big data problem,” said Mitchell, adding “It’s expected by 2024 there will be 3.6 devices per person on the planet connected to the internet. It’s just a huge number of devices that are all generating, consuming and sharing data.”

His research will address that issue by developing advanced data-compression techniques. The goal is to reduce the size of the data that needs to be communicated or stored to reduce the burden on a communications infrastructure which can’t support the exponential growth that is occurring.

“There have been many advances toward the development of communication theory and devices, however attention to data compression has lagged,” Mitchell explained. “The CAREER award provides five-years of funding, but it will initiate a whole career in this field. I believe that advanced data compression over a network is going to be a critical component in our future communication systems for decades.”

Mitchell will work with network-aware data compression techniques that evaluate the type of data and the similarities in the structure and content of data, as well as how the users are connected to one another. For example, people in a sports arena streaming video of a football game. He will employ advanced machine-learning and circuit design techniques to identify patterns in the data and find more efficient ways to process and compress the data to take the theory into practical application.

“It’s a hot topic just now to apply machine learning to communications problems. This is a very natural problem to do that with and the students are enthusiastic to work on it.”

Through a previous three-year National Science Foundation project to develop technologies to enable the next generation of network communication known as 5G, Mitchell and his team developed preliminary results showing that a 30-60 percent improvement toward theoretical limits when compared to the existing state-of-the-art methods can be achieved using these strategies. With this project, he hopes to demonstrate proof of concept—develop the algorithms, show that the concept holds, design the circuits, and have a prototype of the devices to implement into practice. This could open the door for the industry to pursue building devices that would employ the technology.

“It’s a hard mathematical problem to solve,” said Mitchell, who earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics. He had a course in algebraic coding theory that led him to some engineering seminars. “I thought the mathematics of error correcting codes was really cool and then I learned how engineers were building systems with it and using it to solve real-world problems.” He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Edinburgh, U.K.

Therein lies the next huge problem to solve: getting young people interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to fill the growing need for a future workforce in those fields.

A big factor in Mitchell’s NSF award is an integrated educational component that includes targeted K-12 activities. He will use examples from his research into integrated, hands-on, motivating lessons for students, particularly among minority and underrepresented groups. Teachers will be supported with training and mentoring to ensure the long-term sustainability necessary for the success of the program.

He will work through current College of Engineering K-12 outreach programs STEM programs, including the Pre-Freshman Engineering Program and Project Lead the Way. His plan has already gained support from the Las Cruces Academy and the Las Cruces Public Schools. “If teachers can repeat these lessons every year that can have massive impact,” said Mitchell.

To get students on the STEM path, introduction to certain foundational concepts and initial engagement has to happen for children in grades four to six. Not only do students have to be engaged early on, but by grade nine they have to develop self-motivation to learn. These initiatives have to start well before college.

Through his own experience with K-5 outreach programs, Mitchell has found that young children can be engaged through interactive games, such as asking them to write messages to their friends with as few characters as possible (data compression) or finding the answer to a question by allowing them to ask questions only to the person next to them and that person can ask questions only to the person next to  and so on (networks). Children are familiar with the technology at a young age, smartphones, tablets, etc. This gives them an idea about how the technology works.

“It’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “I think the challenge is getting them to know that math is cool or engineering is cool, at a young age. We can lead them to conclude that these topics are cool because the devices that they use all the time are using that technology or those ideas. I think you can skip many of the details and work on their motivation and aspiration. Providing them with that initial engagement is the key feature. Telling them they can do it and why it’s interesting can change their whole perception. Catching that interest can make a huge difference.”