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ELVIS II: The NewWorld Tour

By Jonathan Gourlay

I was going to use this space to respond to feedback of my earlier call to embrace China and hold that nation close. But I figured that re-opening that topic might make too many well-meaning but strident nationalists uneasy, resulting in calls formy being drawn and quartered. Just in time, I got a call from National Instruments (NI) and the enlightened folk there got me to thinking on broader terms. Namely, ELVIS.

NI, as you probably already know, is deeply invested in education, at many levels. There’s RoboLab, the programming software used in the LEGOMINDSTORMS for Schools project; the company’s support of FIRST Robotics for high school students; K- 12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Education; and local and far-flung customized outreach programs.

Now, by no means is NI the only software or hardware company looking to the future. Apple, Autodesk, Lenovo, Microsoft, PTC, Siemens PLM Software, SolidWorks, Sun — the list goes on. They all support education and have initiatives to spark creativity, but only NI has ELVIS.

Partly in response to “The Quiet Crisis” illuminated by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson and others a handful of years ago — but mostly because NI is run by geniuses — ELVIS is back and on the world-college tour.

In case you missed it, “The Quiet Crisis” speaks to research by the National Science Foundation into the demographics of advanced degreed engineers and scientists: You’re getting old. While we’re barely keeping up with replacements for those who retire now, as more and more of you leave the workforce over the next few decades, there won’t be nearly enough new engineers and scientists to fill your shoes. Scary.

ELVIS stands for Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite, and it’s a slick combination ofNIMultisim10.1, a customizable box loaded with a dozen integrated instruments from an oscilloscope to a digital multimeter, and a USB interface.

Now in its second generation, ELVIS II is bringing the lab and the classroom together in one place so that today’s i-Pod generation of engineering students remain excited by, well, engineering. NI saw that students were having a hard time tying classroomtheory together with lab time and dropping out. NI decided to try to stop the record withdrawal rates in engineering and applied sciences by coming up with a way for students to apply theory immediately, comparing simulations to the hardware they build in real time.

What better inspiration than ELVIS?

ELVIS was initially designed by physics professor Paul Dixon of Cal State San Bernardino. His ELVIS doesn’t leave the building, but can easily move from class to class. Since its introduction in 2003, ELVIS has played and continues to play at more than 1,000 universities worldwide. It’s used at MIT, Georgia Tech, U of Texas Austin, Virginia Tech, Korea Applied Institute for Science and Technology, National Tokyo University, and a bunch of other institutes of higher learning in Asia and Europe.

Because the original ELVIS was too cumbersome for labs (ironic, no?), it was streamlined. ELVIS II has slimmed down from six pounds to two, has an ample interchangeable breadboard, and an integrated USB. It’s all centered around LabVIEW.

When NI sells a set of the boards, it hands the source code over to professors despite its capability of performing 18 experiments in specialties like telecommunications, high voltage alternating current circuits, and embedded design.

While ELVIS II is expected to provide the instant gratification for today’s engineering student in those all-too-rare “a ha” moments, it also provides great flexibility, versatility, and affordability to schools and colleges.

Let’s hope tools like this are widely adopted throughout the world to make sure we steer bright kids into professions that will, hopefully, make life better and save us from ourselves.

Jonathan Gourlay is features editor of DE.

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DE's editors contribute news and new product announcements to Digital Engineering. Press releases can be sent to them via DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.