Still Learning – and Teaching – to Experience the “Wow”
Mark Fowler planned to get a two-year degree from Broome Community College and take a job as a technician with IBM. That’s before he realized he hadn’t learned everything.
“I have still not learned everything, but I keep trying,” says the associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. “The problem is that there’s more information being generated every day and I can’t keep up.”
Fowler’s quest for more learning continued with a BT in Electrical Engineering Technology from Binghamton University. Then, while doing graduate work at Penn State, Fowler was given a teaching assignment he loved and an adviser urged him to skip over a master’s degree to pursue a doctorate and become a teacher instead.
Growing up, Fowler often took apart electrical devices to see how they worked, although he wasn’t always able to put them back together again. He also annoyed his parents while trying to electrify his guitar -- taking apart stereo equipment to make it louder. His brother-in-law, an electrical engineer, gave him projects to work on that just added to his passion.
Hungry for learning, Fowler often uses food analogies to teach signal processing. “We have one theory that says you give me some complicated wiggling signal and we can break it down into components that are basic sine waves that have a very predictable behavior.”
He relates that to seeing a picture of a cake, then putting the ingredients together. “You see a pile of powder, a glob of greasy stuff, a cup full of liquid, a cup full of chunky stuff,” he said. “Yet you put all that together in the right quantities and in the right sequence and you come up with something very different.”
A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching 2007, Fowler is listed as the inventor on six patents. He worked in the defense industry at Loral, Lockheed-Martin and IBM prior to coming to Binghamton University in 1999.
As part of his teaching, he still enjoys simple things, such as doing the math. It sometimes becomes a “wow” experience when the equations come together like a puzzle and he can say, “I didn’t know that before and now I can show this property will always be true.” Then he takes the math and puts it into a computer algorithm and tries it out “with real data and you see this actually does something useful.”
When students come to him for advice, Fowler urges them not to worry about what educational options to consider. Instead, he suggests they should pick what seems like a good, viable path. But, he adds, they must then strive to do the things on that path that will, looking backwards, make it the right path to have picked. “Going into it, the educational path I took surely was not the “best” route to becoming a professor, but looking back on it there are experiences that I made happen along that path that have helped me immensely in what I do -- things that give me a unique perspective on research and teaching that I would not otherwise have had.”