Cars, K'NEX and clocks
Though mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) usually evokes images of complex equations and high-tech robotics, some more down-to-earth items adorn MAE professor Michael Littman's office: radios from the 1920s and World War II, a clock from a clock tower, motors, a phonograph and an antique payphone.
Littman, who has taught at the University since 1979, is well-known around campus for his passion for contraptions. He supervises students in building models of the Eiffel Tower with K'NEX plastic construction toys for their independent work and restored a University-owned Ford Model T.
While Littman makes no secret of his own passion for playing with "toys," as he calls his projects, he said his hands-on approach is the best way to ensure that students truly grasp concepts. "The education activities that work the best do something for the faculty member as well as the students," he said. "If you engage in an activity and everybody gets something out of it, you get a kind of magic and it just works."
In his course MAE 412: Microprocessors for Measurement and Control, for example, Littman has his students design and build microcomputers that control the operation of model trains.
Eric Whitman '08, who took the course with Littman and currently has him as a thesis advisor, said Littman helps students get a hands-on look at engineering projects. "He's one of the few professors interested in hardware," he said. "The way he teaches really reflects that."
Glenn Northey, who manages the MAE machine shop and has spent 20 years working for Littman as a lab instructor, also emphasized Littman's use of intriguing contraptions to convey concepts. "There are some really clever things he uses," Northey said. "It allows students to think a little differently. He'll bring in the real deal and show how it works, instead of just doing it out of a book." William Watts '09 was one of a group of students who worked with Littman last year to reconstruct a 1958-model motorcycle. "He was a benevolent leader," Watts said. "He seemed to cater to everybody's needs — a very accommodating and reasonable guy."
Littman said his interests have turned increasingly to applied science over the years, fueling his desire to fiddle with everything from antique cars to K'NEX.
Though Littman came to Princeton soon after earning a Ph.D. in atomic physics from MIT and intended to continue in the field, he transitioned to atomic spectroscopy and tunable lasers, then moved on to parallel computing, robotics and designing optical instruments for astronomy.
"My interest changed from the fundamental science to the tool used," he said. "It moved from experimental science to the development of improved scientific tools."
Over the past seven years Littman has also been part of the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) project, working with a team of faculty from MAE, astrophysics and other departments to help NASA develop an observatory that can detect habitable planets near Earth's solar system.
Jeremy Kasdin, an MAE assistant professor who is leading the TPF project, said Littman has been a valuable contributor. "Mike is an outstanding experimentalist," Kasdin said. "He has often helped us find the best solutions to problems and save time by not following paths that would end up fruitless."
In recent years, nonetheless, Littman has concentrated on the classroom, devoting three-quarters of his time to teaching.
In addition to teaching classes for MAE majors, he has collaborated with civil and environmental engineering (CEE) professor David Billington '50 in teaching CEE 102: Engineering in the Modern World, a popular engineering class aimed at non-engineers.
"Princeton has a special element to it in that our students go on to be world leaders," Littman said. "One can — through teaching — be quite influential on the international scene."
Littman said he sees a downside, however, to the University's diminished emphasis on research relative to other schools. Faculty sometimes feel "too overburdened with teaching to pursue their research and other interests," he said. "I wouldn't put Princeton up on a pedestal."
Still, the University has helped him with his own interests, letting him work on devices such as the Model T and giving him the chance to restore a grandfather clock currently displayed in Prospect House.
"I don't need to own them — I'm just delighted to have access to them," Littman said of such projects. "It's my pleasure to bring the delight of these old toys to students."
"After all," he added, "isn't there an old adage — 'the person who dies with the most toys wins?' "
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