IHAWKe-a-thon: Diverse Students Innovating for Hurricane Disasters

Where do you start when you want to change the way victims can respond to hurricane disasters?  Our IHAWKe students started with human-centered engineering, or design thinking, to learn to innovate in interdisciplinary engineering teams for real world situations.


This month, over 40 students from our KU NSBE, SHPE, AISES, and SWE organizations gathered for an overnight engineering competition to design a new product experience for victims of hurricane disasters.  It is part of our reimagined engineering and diversity programs, IHAWKe (Indigenous, Hispanic, African-American, Women, KU Engineering).  The theme of IHAWKe is for our students to Change the World, Connect with Others, and Conquer their Classes.


Our IHAWKe students spent the entire night, until 5am, before hitting it again at 8am to design ways to help hurricane victims.  They began by developing empathy for hurricane victims by interviewing those that have been victims of hurricanes, power outages, accidents and other traumatic events.


The ideas they came up with were fabulous.  They are beginning a two-week iteration of another set of design prototypes in the IHAWKe Lab at the KU School of Engineering. And now the students are raising money to do even more fact and need finding in places that were hit including Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Will you help them?  If so, please donate even a small amount to the IHAWKe LaunchKU Crowdfunding page.







Please donate at the IHAWKe LaunchKU Crowdfunding page.


Mike Shinn: the Power of Mentors in Tech

This past Homecoming Weekend, the KU Black Alumni Network awarded its Mike and Joyce Shinn Leaders and Innovators Awards and I was touched to receive one because Mike was my mentor for much of my engineering career.

Without Mike as a mentor, I would not have received an internship at GE Medical Systems (now GE Healthcare), received an offer to become a GE Edison Engineer, finished my master’s in Electrical & Computer Engineering at Marquette University, become a GEM Consortium Ph.D. Fellow at the University of Kansas, become a KU School of Engineering Advisory Board member, and ultimately Associate Dean for Diversity , Equity and Inclusion and Spahr Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at KU. Even though he’s now in heaven, what he’s given lives on in me and the countless others he has been a role model and mentor for in engineers across the country. The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) even has its prestigious student award named after him. His legacy also lives on in the Shinn Scholarship at KU he and his wife, Joyce, still provide.

So now you see why I am so honored to get Mike and Joyce Shinn’s Innovators and Leaders award. He was a leader and innovator. Born and raised in Kansas, he was the first African American to get an aerospace engineering degree at KU. He was a roommate and fellow football player with Gale Sayers. Mike had signed a contract to play for the Green Bay Packers but decided instead to become an engineer at GE. He’s made a bigger impact on the field of engineering than he ever would have as a Packer. A football player plays football to entertain others. Mike became an engineer to inspire and change our lives for the better.

I met Mike at a Distinguished Black Engineering Alumni Award banquet at KU while I was working on my masters there. As an honoree he spoke of how his ancestors literally helped build KU by moving and transporting stones. He spoke about how he was taught to reach back and pull up someone else. He practiced what he preached. He reached back and pulled me up that night. I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do next. He asked me what I was going to do in the summer and I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Why don’t you come work at GE?” I said, “Sure.” And the rest is history. His act of kindness and encouragement started a chain reaction of preparation, hard work, and success. He did not know that he was an answer to my prayers to God for direction in my life.

You may not know the power of your encouraging words, the timeliness of an opportunity you provide, the kindness of the recommendation you make on behalf of others, or the significance your role modeling may be in the life of another human soul. I know. Because Mike Shinn was my mentor.

diversity, Education, Engineering, STEM, Technology

KU Women of Color in STEM: Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges

Last week, KU’s Diversity and Women’s Engineering Programs, also known as IHAWKe, hosted two distinguished female KU engineering alumnae, Tirzah Gregory, HNTB, and Roberta “Bobbie” Wells, U.S. Department of Interior.  Prior to Tirzah’s keynote, we chatted about her leadership experience she gained through NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers, while an undergraduate student at Washington University.  Tirzah, a KU master’s alum in Civil Engineering, spoke about how her NSBE activities also provided a supportive network of friends in engineering that helped her make it through her rigorous studies.  She is now the Bridge Group Director for HNTB.

During her keynote, Tirzah courageously shared how growing up in a biracial family in a predominantly African American community taught her the importance of not tolerating diversity but celebrating it.  She also spoke of how her faith taught her the value of embracing different cultures and beliefs and to seek commonality rather than division.  With over 170 students attending the event at the KU Memorial Union and 30 companies represented, Tirzah made a big impression on the female and male engineering students present.  She shared leadership and team lessons on how women and minorities, such as herself, can build bridges within their teams and organizations. She was recently honored by the Kansas City Business Journal as a 2017 Next Gen Leader.

Prior to Tirzah’s keynote, Roberta “Bobbie” Wells, a Haskell Indian Nations University alum and a 2015 KU Civil Engineering alum, spoke briefly on her journey from her birthplace to Haskell Indian Nations University.  Her pursuit of her lifelong dream to be an engineer required her to work long hours to save up enough money to attend KU after graduating from Haskell.  She was the first person in her family and the first woman from her reservation to become a civil engineer.  Bobbie’s grandmother raised her and was able to make the 1,000-mile journey to see her walk down the hill for her graduation.  Bobbie works for the U.S. Department of Interior, Division of Energy and Mineral Development.

The outstanding achievements of Tirzah and Bobbie make them excellent role models for young women of color to motivate them to break barriers that attempt to prevent them from pursuing an engineering education and to view their diversity as assets for the engineering and STEM fields.

Computer Science, Engineering, Technology

Should You Buy the New Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular?

The answer is simple. Yes, if you want all the features of the original Apple Watch but still have continuous Internet and phone connectivity for phone calls and messages even while your iPhone is not around. All this with potentially a few headaches trying to get your carrier to connect to the cell plan.

I happily received my Apple Watch Series 3 (AWS3) in the mail while on a business trip. When I returned, I immediately called AT&T to see if I could get it set up. They couldn’t help me. I called Apple and talked to a Senior Advisor. After 30 minutes or so, he couldn’t help either. I called AT&T back, and the advisor said they had a global outage and she couldn’t assist. I asked to speak to her supervisor, and she said, let me put you on a brief hold. After I brief hold, I heard a couple of clicks and was disconnected. I tweeted Apple Support, and they wanted to know the error codes I was getting. I asked that they check with their Senior Advisor because I had already done that. By now, it was a couple of hours on the phone and Twitter with no progress.

Help arrived the next day. The same Apple Senior Advisor, Jonas, called me back. He wanted to get on the line with AT&T while he was on the phone. Judy from AT&T spent around an hour and a half helping me to connect. Suffice it to say that this was not the smooth, enjoyable experience that Steve Jobs would have imagined. But I was happy that Judy got the cell connection to work for me.

So what was the solution? A new line had to be set up with a different phone number than my regular cell phone number. This step involved AT&T doing a credit check using my driver’s license number. Once they got that new phone number in their system, they set up Active Sync to tie my new Apple Watch phone number with my cell phone number. I had to use the Apple Watch App on my iPhone to get the IMEI and the EID numbers (both pretty long numbers to read back) to give to AT&T. They then used ActiveSync (?) to tie my new Apple Watch Series 3 number with my regular cell number. When I get a call to my cell number, my Apple Watch also rings. My wife said she couldn’t tell that I was on my watch talking to her when I called her using my Apple Watch Series 3 on my wrist. Viola!

The Apple Watch Series 3 is faster than my original Apple Watch, Siri works much better and faster, the watch is swim proof with a cool “swim lock” feature that pumps water out of the watch, the battery life appears to be 4X longer and all the health and activity tracking it had before. Top that all off with being able to go anywhere without my cell phone and get calls, messages, and email, and the Apple Watch Series 3 definitely seems worth the buy. (P.S. The cell phone connection with my AT&T plan is only $10 a month for unlimited data.)

Computer Science, Design Thinking, diversity, Education, Engineering, Innovation, STEM

4 Tenets for Diverse PreK-12 Innovation

Today, in Columbus, Ohio, I gave an American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) distinguished lecture on the topic of igniting and sustaining creativity and innovation for diverse PreK – 12, or pre-kindergarten to grade 12, education. As the incoming Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the School of Engineering at the University of Kansas, it was an excellent time for me to summarize four tenets that I developed after reflecting on my years in academia conducting research and outreach in engineering and computer science. Here are my four tenets for diverse PreK-12 innovation:

  1. Everyone has infinite value and potential to learn.
  2. Everyone has innate problem-solving and creative design ability and potential.
  3. Children want to innovate and create solutions for people and things they care about.
  4. Educators must guide and instill this lifelong learning potential in children.

Although these tenets were written for PreK – grade 12 students, I believe they apply to college-age students and beyond as well. These tenets describe the MINDSET that has guided my interaction with students, particularly those underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. I’ll elaborate on each one.

Infinite Value and Learning Potential

Tenet #1: Every child has infinite value and potential to learn. I cannot place a dollar value on a human being. Any amount of money would not be insufficient. When I worked at Apple, a student asked Steve Jobs what he would make if he had all the money in the world. At that time, Apple had several billions of dollars in cash. Essentially Apple had enough money to hire anyone in the world. The limiting factor to a company’s success comes down to the people hired and working on the problem. If you have all the money in the world but don’t have the right talent for the job, then your capital endeavor will be useless. Steve Jobs was concerned with hiring the right people, including black engineers (see my TEDx talk Belonging in Technology: What I learned from Steve Jobs.)

Often people, including teachers and professors, make the mistake of judging a person’s learning potential based on their outward appearance. Sometimes we pre-judge a person’s learning potential based on their household income or the neighborhood they live in. If those pre-judgements were true, I would have never risen to the ranks of a distinguished chair, endowed professor, or associate dean at a major research university. Being from a low-income household was an asset, not a deficit since it allowed me the opportunity to create my own toys, imagine moonshots, build make-believe robots, and go to the public library to read up on the latest science. My Dad and Mom’s bank account was small, but the amount of love and sacrifice they gave me was worth more than having billions. In fact, their love and sacrifice turned into have all six of children earning college degrees including three Ph.D.’s and three Master’s degrees.

Innate Creativity and Problem-Solving Ability

Tenet #2: Every child has innate problem-solving and creative design ability and potential. As a faculty member at Spelman College, I made sure that the students that joined our robotics club, the SpelBots, were reminded that they already had design skills, creativity, and problem-solving skills. If they wanted to apply those abilities and skills to robotics or computer science, they just needed to learn the language, whether it was math or C++. This language would allow them to express abstract thoughts and build concrete artifacts. For example, they could apply their love of dance and music by programming robots to dance (see Jazmine’s humanoid robot dance.)

This tenet was instilled in my SpelBots so that they believed they could solve any problem if they learned the language and investigated any accompanying knowledge they would need. It enabled them to become the first all-female, African American team to compete in RoboCup Osaka 2005 and to tie in a championship match at the RoboCup Japan Open 2009. RoboCup is the university-level “World Cup” of robotics and artificial intelligence held on a different continent each year.

Innovate for Communities

Tenet #3: Children want to innovate and create solutions for people and things they care about. Recently my research team developed a culturally responsive humanoid robotics program and curriculum for underrepresented middle school girls as part of the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative. Essentially, we allow middle school girls to discover topics of interest that are relevant to themselves and their communities and show them how technology, including robots that can talk and listen to humans, might be used to address those problems. In one of our Co-Robots, or collaborative robots, workshops, a team of middle school Latina girls decided to address the shortage of women working in the STEM fields. They researched sources to prepare a presentation and also programmed a prototype solution. Their solution to this problem involved them creating humanoid robot avatars to act on behalf of the interviewer and the interviewee. They wanted to remove gender bias in a STEM job interview by having the participants answer questions based solely on their knowledge and abilities, not their outward appearance. This is also an example of Tenet #2 at work (i.e. innate creativity and problem-solving ability). Because these students cared about this issue, they were motivated to solve a problem by learning new technology, humanoid robotics programming.

Instill Lifelong Learning

Tenet #4: Educators must guide and instill this lifelong learning potential in children. At the second global grand challenges for engineering summit held in Beijing, China, Dr. Richard Miller, Olin College outlined what he saw as the future of education. The Knowledge Economy was based on what we know and involved the teacher as the “Sage on the Stage”. However, Google helped supplant that model because knowledge content was no longer limited to what we could easily retrieve from our minds. Google made it easy to easily retrieve unlimited knowledge using their search engine.

The Maker Economy moved from what we know to what we could imitate and perfect and having the teacher as the “Guide on the Side”. It’s not just “what you know” but “what you can do”. According to Miller, instead of rows of seats and a blackboard, the learning space is made up of small groups with maker projects.

The Innovation Economy is based on the ideas that students can generate. It’s not just “what you can do” but “what you can conceive. This approach is based on intrinsic motivation and design thinking.

The 2nd Global Grand Challenge Summit highlighted the complex, global multidisciplinary problems our students are facing. These problems require global systems thinking to make sure solutions do not bring about unintended consequences. Students will need to understand diverse cultures along with the coupling of intertwined social, scientific, economic, religious, and political issues. In this context, it is not enough for an engineer to have narrow technical training. An engineer equipped to work in the innovation economy with holistic design thinking skills is needed. These are the types of creative and innovative students we must begin preparing through our PreK – 12 education and beyond.

© 2017 Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.

Computer Science, STEM, swift

Learning to Code in Swift is Almost Like Building with Lego Blocks

Coding in Swift, or any programming language, is like playing with Legos.  You examine what each brick can do, how it can connect with other bricks, and then proceed to assemble them in legal combinations to build the toy rocket ship or mansion of your choice. In Swift, you have different objects that you can connect to build your user interface, along with other functional building blocks of code, or objects, that can be used to make an app.  Swift is Apple’s relatively new programming language used to make iOS, tvOS, watchOS, and macOS apps. (Is carOS on the horizon?).  For more Swift knowledge, check out https://developer.apple.com/swift/ and  https://swifteducation.github.io.

Now for the “geeky” part of this learning exercise: If you want to use a Split View with a table view list when your iPhone 7 Plus or iPad is rotated to the left, you could be in for some coding problems.  The rest of this lesson assumes you know some swift and want to put together the “architecture” for a more complex app.  Note: the original “geeky” title of this blog post was:  Using a Swift 3.0 Split View Controller and Table View List within a Tab Bar Controller in Landscape mode ( iOS 10.2 and Xcode 8.2).

Xcode allows you to visually connect some of these user interface building “blocks” together.  Your Facebook iOS app or your Apple Mail app has tab bars at the bottom or lists of messages that you can select and read.  These are controlled by Tab Bar Controllers, Split View Controllers, and Table (, or List) View Controllers.

If you want to use a Split View with a table view list when your iPhone 7 Plus or iPad is rotated to the left, you could be in for some coding problems.

Recently I taught students how to use a Split View Controller that contained a Table View list within a Tab Bar Navigation Controller so that it works even when the iPhone is rotated.  Sound complicated?  Xcode 8.2 using Swift 3.0 makes it “easy” using Interface Builder and Storyboards.  I’ll assume you have been learning how to code in Swift and how to create UIViews with common user interface elements.  Hopefully, prior to this exercise, you have learned how to use Tab Bars and Navigation controllers before reading through this exercise.   If you have not, you should still be able to get the basics working using these instructions.


First, I wanted the student to see how to use the Split View Controller using the Master-Detail template in Xcode.  So to begin with, create a new Xcode project using the Master-Detail template:

To get a better understanding of how to the code works, I had the students go to the DetailViewController.swift file and change the NSDate variable to String.  See what happens when you try to compile the code.  The code should break.  Try to see what kind of objects are being created and what happens when those objects are being changed to String from NSDate.  Use a temporary variable to make the NSDate into a string.  For example,

myDate = String(describing: NSDate()

objects.insert(myDate, at: 0)

Make all the necessary changes, compiling and testing the code as you go along, to get the app to run successfully in the Simulator.  Make sure you use the Simulator Hardware menu to rotate you Simulated iPhone or iPad to the right or left.  You should see the Split View in action.  Note: You don’t have to make these changes in order for your split view controller and tab bar to work.


Search your menu of iOS objects for the Tab Bar Controller.  Drag and drop the Tab Bar Controller into your project that contains the Master-Detail Template.  Then delete one of the Tab Bar Views (for example, Item 1) by clicking on the segue that connects it and then the Item 1 view itself.

Next, control-drag from the Tab Bar Controller to Split-View Controller in your main.storyboard.  When the select menu comes up, select “Relationship Segue – view controller”.  This allows the Tab Bar Controller to control your Split-View Controller.  Your storyboard should now look like the following (note: I changed one of the views to have a brown background color).

Adding a Tab Bar Controller with a Split View Controller containing a Table View Controller list that shows detail.


We discovered that our code only works when we take out some of the split view controller code in the AppDelegate.swift file.  So comment out the following in AppDelegate.swift. That is, after the “Override point for customization” comment, comment everything in that method except the “return true”.


Now the code runs in the Split View mode:

And the Tab Bar Item 1 also works:

Now you have the skeleton code for an app that uses a tab bar controller with one of the tabs utilizing a split view controlled table view list that works when your iPhone is in landscape mode. Viola!

About the Author:

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and artificial intelligence professor, STEAM and “Everyone Can Code” advocate, and the author of “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives.”  Dr. Williams is the incoming Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Spahr Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Kansas.

Computer Science, diversity, Education, Engineering, Innovation, STEM, Technology

Diversity is the Gateway to Innovation and not a Dirty Word

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D. accepts new role as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at KU School of Engineering

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D. accepts new role as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the KU School of Engineering

Steve Jobs, in a 1996 Wired magazine interview, said “Creativity is just connecting things. …A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.”  He went on to say, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”  

According to Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, having diverse experiences and perspectives is the key to being able to connect seemingly disparate things and create innovative designs for products or services.  When he hired me as Apple’s first senior engineering diversity manager in 2008, he was letting others know that Apple’s innovation required as many diverse perspectives as possible, including those from diverse backgrounds such as minorities and women.

For some people, diversity is a dirty word.  They think that it means a tech company wants to lower their standards of excellence just to hire a woman or minority. But according to Steve, a tech industry filled with people who have primarily homogeneous experiences, do not have as much to draw from to create innovative solutions that meet customers’ needs.

This summer, I am embarking, Lord willing, on a new chapter in my journey to increase diversity in the tech field as well as in academia.  I recently accepted an offer to become the University of Kansas, School of Engineering’s first Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Charles E. and Mary Jane Spahr Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  I am thrilled that I will be working to diversify the educational STEM pipeline with hidden gems of talent and ingenuity from all walks of life, including those coming from groups underrepresented in engineering and computer science.  Diversity in tech is not a dirty word, nor is it optional one.  Real innovation demands diversity.

About the Author:

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and artificial intelligence professor at Marquette University and the author of “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives.”  Dr. Williams plans to return to his alma mater, the University of Kansas, to begin a new chapter in his God-given journey to help young people reach their full potential in education and to help communities rebuild families, industry, and healthy lives.