Professor Mike Prairie ’83, Engineering with a Musical Ear,
by Jacque E. Day with photos by Mark Collier.
The energy is buoyant in Mike Prairie’s Monday afternoon junior-level electronics lab. Grouped by twos—lab buddies—the students pursue their work at a friendly, kinetic pace, as if each pair wants to be the first to successfully complete the task at hand. Cadet Command Sergeant Major Nolan Fergusson, whose classmates call him Fergie, describes the exercise. “Today we’re working on Class A, Class A-B, and Class B amplifiers, simple circuits.” He chuckles. “But you may want to find another example. Ours is not working.”
Prairie, who has been floating between the projects in typical lab-prof fashion, appears instantly and checks the wiring on their circuit board. “You wired it correctly,” he tells them, “so my next suggestion is to move the circuit in case you found a bad spot on the Proto-Board.”
A few feet away, Alex Sciacca chimes in. “Professor, we’ve got something.” Behind him, a couple of cadets queue up music on a tablet. Sciacca instinctively raises his voice a notch to adjust to new background noise as he explains the objective of the lab. “The eventual goal is to connect a phone to a speaker with an auxiliary cable to create our own amplifier,” he says.
Across the room, Artmiz Golkaramnay and Tim Clemens examine data they’ve collected from the A-B amps. “We’ll use the data to plot the [Fast Fourier Transform], and the FFT will give us the relative power of the harmonics,” Golkaramnay explains. “And from the relative power we can then find the total harmonic distortion. The end goal for this lab is to see the basic types of output stages using different amplifiers,” she smiles. “Then I think for fun we’re going to hook it up to a sound system.”
Prairie inspects their data and Proto-Board. “Are you ready to hook it up to a speaker?” The two nod, and he zips off to fetch the sound system and cables.
Meanwhile, students across the table burst into an a cappella rendition of Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” ostensibly as a prelude for what’s to come. Moments later, with the speakers connected, Clemens presses play, and the classroom serenade abruptly halts.
Softly at first, the unmistakable synthesizer overture to Europe’s iconic ’80s stadium-rock hit graces the air. Prairie suggests that they change the value of one of the resistors to increase the amplifier’s gain, and as Golkaramnay makes the adjustment, the volume rises and “The Final Countdown”—the original this time—fills the space.
Music as a Teaching Tool
For electrical engineering professor Mike Prairie ’83, employing music as a teaching tool is nothing new. In 2010, he co-published a paper titled “Machine Shop Training with a Musical Note” with Norwich mechanical engineering professor R. Danner Friend. The paper, presented at a conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, details a “hands-on machine-shop training activity … with the goal of teaching basic shop tool skills” by “creating a useful object,” in this case, a simple flute. “So we came up with engineering drawings that had the actual parts,” Prairie says. “And the whole idea was to teach them how to use the tools in the shop safely and how to do different operations. So they used a lathe, the milling machine, and the drill press. And in the process of a three-hour lab, each group made a flute that actually worked.”
This is just one example of how Prairie folds music into his electrical engineering curriculum. While music has been one of a triad of occupational passions in his life—engineering and woodworking being the other two—he made a discovery more than a decade and a half ago that fused these three disciplines together, and for him, it was a game-changer—and a life-changer.
The Story of the Prairie Flute
In his office, surrounded by an array of tools and handmade musical instruments, the bespectacled professor speaks in a low, unassuming voice. He calls his relationship with music “ancient history.”
“I was in the high school band, so when I came Norwich, like everyone else, I was drafted into Band Company,” he chuckles. “Yes, I am a Zoobie.” He played the baritone horn in the Regimental Band for one year, at which point he decided to shift focus and pursue other leadership opportunities within the Corps. By his senior year he had risen to the position of battalion XO and was captain of the rifle team.
Following his 1983 graduation, Prairie commissioned into the Air Force and the next year, completed a master’s in electrical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology. He spent a handful of years working for the Air Force Lab at Wright-Patterson AFB before returning to school and earning a PhD from North Carolina State in 1991. Two more Air Force Lab assignments followed, first at Kirtland, then at Bolling. During this period, he and his wife, Sharron, started their family. He retired at the rank of major in 1998 and would go on to work in industry for the next decade.
Through all that, music remained a vibrant part of his life, and he seized every opportunity to play.
He was also cultivating his woodworking hobby during this time. In the late 1990s when his father-in-law, a juried potter, attended a craft show, Prairie tagged along. “There, I saw this guy playing [wood] flutes.” The sound blew him away, but the instrument was way beyond his price range. Later, at home, he asked Sharron to pull out her old elementary-school recorder. “She had a nice one … it was actually made out of wood, the $8 version instead of the $3 plastic version. I tried to play it.” But the sound of that wood flute haunted him.
A few years later, while under contract with the Army on a long-term engineering project, he attended a Native American flute festival. “One of the guys was selling a kit for twenty bucks. So I bought it, stopped at Lowe’s to get some glue, took it back to the hotel, and made it. And when it worked I was like, I can do this! And it was easy to play. So I started making them from scratch.”
But he encountered a problem—the flutes he was crafting were badly out of tune in the second octave. “So I dusted off my engineering books and started looking at the acoustics. And I discovered that the Native American-style flute can be modeled in the same manner as an electrical transmission line. It’s the same math. You just substitute pressure for voltage, and vibrating air flow for current, and you’ve got the same thing.”
That revelation marked a new beginning for Prairie. “Those three things: The woodworking, the music, and the engineering background all came together. And I’ve been very distracted by the whole idea ever since.”
A Band of Robots
In a Juckett Hall classroom, Prairie gingerly unrolls a large, soft cloth containing roughly two dozen flutes he has crafted over the years. “Never bought one,” he says, “just the kit.” He picks up his first flute, plays a smooth phrase, then places it gently back on the cloth. “On this one I made a few mistakes that I would never make again, but I learned a lot, and it works.”
When Prairie joined the Norwich faculty in 2008, he initially hesitated to engage his students in his flute-making hobby. “Having been in the military and worked for the government, and knowing Norwich’s experiential-learning model, I have a very strong conviction that whatever I’m doing for research should be something that I can take into the classroom to teach the students electronics and electromagnetics,” he says, “—something that makes me a stronger teacher.
So he began instead with a basic idea: a signal. Most signals can’t be seen, he says, nor felt nor tasted. “The best way to experience a signal with our senses is to bring it down to a spectrum or a frequency that you can hear.” To demonstrate this principle, he built a dulcimer, a simple stringed instrument, “to show the students how a magnetic pickup works. What are the electromagnetics associated with it, and what are the electronics associated with amplifying the pickup vibrations on the string?”
That got him thinking, and he approached his colleague, electrical engineering professor Ron Lessard, for a collaboration. “Ron does a lot of computer architecture stuff, and he’s into robotics and he likes teamwork. So we started putting our heads together and came up with this idea of having a musical ensemble play together in a robotic band.”
Although the idea is still in the conceptual phase, it gave rise to several senior projects, including one that looked into assistive technology to help someone without fully functioning hands fret a guitar, and another that evolved into a mechatronic banjo. “The students learned a ton about power electronics because they had to charge up big capacitors and release lots of currents all at once. And they got the banjo to work.”
In the 2014–15 academic year, some mechanical engineering students revisited the guitar-fretting project using a mechanical approach. “The concept was actually pretty good, and they submitted it to the RESNA Student Design Competition.” Prairie, a member of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, has been in contact with a Veterans Administration group in Richmond, Virginia, that is doing similar work with assistive technology. This could, he acknowledges, be a new direction for his research.
The Craft of Engineering
As history and pre-history have borne out, it doesn’t take a PhD to make a flute. Using trial and error, “someone with no math background can make a really nice- sounding Native American–style flute,” he affirms. Prairie, however, prefers to approach flute-making in the manner of an engineer. “I determine which flute I want. I do the math and punch in the numbers. And out pops a spreadsheet with data.” Still, he admits that he initially drills the holes smaller than the calculations advise. “I’m always tweaking at the end. That’s where the crafting part comes in.
As exciting as his work becomes, Prairie will always keep his flute-making percolating on the side. He still occasionally finds flute-related classroom applications, such as one electronics lab in which students explored the instrumentation of a tube. “The idea was to map out pressure waves inside the tube, and some of the students built this apparatus and were able to measure the pressure at different points in the bore.” Of course playing a flute is part of the fun of making one, and he does enjoy playing in church and in the occasional performance. And, while he makes flutes for the peace it brings him, a small part of him hopes that his designs will catch on with professional flutists.
The Prairie Flute. That has a nice ring.
As for the future, he is hard at work with some Australian scholars who have sought his expertise to help create designs for 3D-printed microtonal flutes (see photo, page 14). And, he is holding on to that vision of the Norwich Robotic Band.
“I can dream,” he laughs.