ISE offers new undergraduate track in the Internet of Things

9/25/2017 Madeleine Hubbard

ISE faculty, students, and alumni are wiring up the Internet of Things. 

Written by Madeleine Hubbard



The Internet of Things (IoT) is arriving. ISE is poised to greet it.

IoT, at the level of the consumer, will mean that all your devices—from your phone to your thermostat to your garage door to your pacemaker—will be digitally connected. From a central location, say—your watch—you’ll be able to monitor sensors on these devices and control their behavior. Your home, your car, your office will all become a seamless extension of your mobile devices.
Business Insider expects that there will be more than 24 billion IoT devices on Earth by 2020. That's approximately four devices for every human being on the planet. And as we approach that point, $6 billion will flow into IoT solutions, including application development, device hardware, system integration, data storage, security, and connectivity. But that will be money well spent, as those investments will generate $13 trillion by 2025. 

An oft-quoted description of IoT is “anything that can be connected, will be connected.”

ISE students, alumni, and faculty are using their systems engineering and business knowledge to help make IoT a reality. At ISE, a specialized focus for undergraduate students (Secondary Field Option) in the Internet of Things was introduced this year.


BSIE Student Daniel Yee.
BSIE Student Daniel Yee.

Daniel Yee, a senior in Industrial Engineering, is currently researching IoT as a summer project through ISE’s Research Opportunities for Undergraduates (REU) grant. When Professor and Associate Head of Undergraduate Programs Richard Sowers offered Yee an opportunity to research IoT, Yee took it.


Yee says, “How many times have you ever just walked out of your apartment and said… ‘Did I forget to turn off the air conditioning? Did I forget to turn off the stove?’  … Well, with the Internet of Things, you can wirelessly communicate with your phone to control your home, so you can see the status of certain things like your stove, air conditioner, garage opener, things like that. So, I guess I always thought, ‘well, I wish I could have that, so why not build it myself?’”

Yee says, "I've always enjoyed programing, but I just didn't know what to apply it to."


Professor Richard Sowers is the faculty mentor for all new students choosing the new IoT Secondary Field Option.  Sowers realized that the IoT Secondary Field Option "would naturally fit into a number of things that we as a department are teaching, and that this was the right time and the right setup to actually start.”


Professor Ramavarapu “R.S.” Sreenivas, head of graduate studies at ISE, works closely with Professor Sowers. Over the summer, they both mentored undergraduate students conducting research on the IoT. Much of what Sreenivas studies concerns the ideal time to turn on appliances through the IoT. Sreenivas says by using real-time pricing, if you use your appliances at a specific time of day, it can cost the consumer less money in electricity. To figure this out, Sowers, Sreenivas and their team use risk calculations. He says, “We are motivated by price. If something is cheap, do it. If something is expensive and you can defer it to a later date, why not?”

For example, if power is cheaper at 3 a.m., from the comfort of your bed, you can program your washing machine to run a load at that time, without having to lose any sleep to turn it on.


Professor Ramavarapu 'RS' Sreenivas
Professor Ramavarapu 'RS' Sreenivas

Sreenivas uses another example for the possibilities offered through the IoT. He says you can “sink a moisture sensor down into the ground… It then realizes that two feet below the ground, the soil is a little bit dryer. It just sprays enough water.” This prevents water waste from occurring by needlessly watering lawns. Sreenivas says this is an example of “individualized models that you have to build that are unique to your home.”


Sreenivas says, “Younger minds are good at synthesizing this: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had these apps? Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?’ We can worry (later) about what is feasible and what is not.” He thinks that the Internet of Things can inspire ISE students to pursue engineering, and help them realize how their math and science classes can be used in the real world. 


Drew DePriest, BSGE 2004
Drew DePriest, BSGE 2004

Although the IoT has been an official curriculum track for less than a year, some ISE alumni have already established careers in the IoT.  


Drew DePriest graduated from Illinois in 2004 with a degree in General Engineering (since renamed Systems Engineering and Design in Fall 2016). Today, DePriest works as a sales executive for a startup company called Comfy. DePriest says Comfy will “give people in the office control of their comfort in their space”, by allowing workers to control the thermostat from an app on their phone. 

DePriest says Comfy uses the IoT to “leverage technology across networks to learn from people, learn from their behaviors, and anticipate what they’re going to do next,” by changing the temperature before the worker requests it. Comfy, and other smart building technology, is “the intersection of three things: of computer science, of building science, and user experience designed.” 

DePriest says that working for Comfy is “challenging because it’s a new technology, and people really don’t have anything to compare it to. But then they hear you explain it, and they ask you where has this been for the last twenty years of their lives.”

After earning a bachelor’s in General Engineering in 2012, Jackie DiMonte worked for the IoT company Silver Spring Networks. There, she focused on creating smart city applications such as responsive streetlights. 


Jackie DiMonte, BSGE 2012
Jackie DiMonte, BSGE 2012

DiMonte says, “Having an engineering background is great from a technology perspective.” Because she studied at ISE, DiMonte says she was “able to communicate across all types of people… whether it was engineers or product management or field engineers. Having the [ISE] background in [a] technical job was very instrumental.”


DePriest says, ISE “really taught me how to think. It wasn’t necessarily ‘memorize these equations or what books to read’, that kind of thing. For me, the program was incredibly holistic in its approach, because in the real world, quite frankly, no one is going to tell you all of the answers.”


Sean Kelley, BSIE 2017
Sean Kelley, BSIE 2017

Sean Kelley is a recent graduate from ISE. After earning his bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering in 2017, Kelley moved to Lincoln Park. He now works as a software developer for Uptake, an Internet of Things startup company in Chicago. 


Kelley says Uptake does “predictive analytics for really large machines.” Uptake places sensors in vehicles for companies such as Caterpillar. The sensors monitor when something likely to go wrong in the machine.  Kelley simply says, “Basically if the statistics say, ‘Hey we think that there’s a pattern here’, we’re going to tell you that your machine is going to break and you should fix it before it’s going to cost you more money.'” Kelley says that the Internet of Things “is what makes our product possible. You’re just reading all these sensors off of all the machines.”

Currently, Professor Sowers is researching the Internet of things and the use of a smart power grid with Professor Sreenivas. Sowers says, “We’re finding a whole bunch of opportunities to do things. One of the interesting conclusions that we’ve come to is that the Internet of Things allows for a number of types of signals and data, and also a number of really exciting ways to control things. Those are some disparate things, but IoT holds the promise of putting them together.”

For many of those pioneering IoT, ingenuity comes hand in hand with math and science. Yee says, “Because it’s so new, whatever you want to learn is kind of viable at the moment… Anything goes, really. Creativity is the limit.”

DiMonte predicts that within the next 5 to 10 years, “Our homes are going to be smarter, the things that we are wearing are probably going to be smarter, but they’re all going to be made by different people, and just communicate through a central hub. I think we’re kind of getting there on the consumer side.”

Existing examples of central hubs are Amazon’s Alexa, the Google Home, and the Wink Hub. 

DePriest says, “People are looking at this as the next Industrial Revolution…. We’re in the early stages of what IoT is going to eventually turn into and look like.” 

To ISE students focusing on IoT, DePriest advises, “Be ready for change, be ready for excitement, because it’s going to be a fun ride. It’s not anywhere near complete yet.”

While at the ISE, Kelley says, “Some semesters, I took hits on my grades because I felt like I had really good opportunities to learn outside of the classroom that I wanted to try, like consulting and developing software.” He tells students that they “shouldn't be afraid to make a bad grade or two in order to learn things outside of school that also really interest them!” The opportunities Kelley took at ISE helped him earn valuable experience and boost his resume so he could have the job he does today. 

Yee advises students interested in taking advantage of ISE’s new IoT track to complete their math and computer science courses as soon as possible. Also, Yee advises, “Many times in life, what we call luck, other people call perseverance. So, just show up. Even if you don’t think that you’re going to get a job, or the research position that you want, or the classes that you want, just show up, talk to them, get your voice out there, and maybe things will just maybe go your way.”

Describing the IoT secondary field option, Sowers says, “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a billion dollar opportunity. It’s a serious challenge because it requires a mixture of many things.”

He says, “Someone once asked Wayne Gretzky ‘Why are you so good?’ And [Gretzky] said, ‘I try to skate to where the puck is going, not where the puck has been.’ Students will be living in the future… The future that students will be living in is different from the future that I was living in when I was young. I think it’s pretty clear that the Internet of Things will be a game-changer, and it will be part of the future.”


Students researching the IoT during the Summer of 2017. From left to right: Daniel Yee, Clara Schaye, John Nguyen
Students researching the IoT during the Summer of 2017. From left to right: Daniel Yee, Clara Schaye, John Nguyen


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This story was published September 25, 2017.