MathWorks Interview

MathWorks is a leading global developer of mathematical computing software for scientists and engineers. Its software, MATLAB and Simulink, is used at more than 5,000 universities worldwide. Consulting Manager Chris Hayhurst and Senior Academic Technical Specialist Coorous Mohtadi are both closely involved with developing and delivering MathWorks services in the UK and around the world.

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Consulting Manager Chris Hayhurst and Senior Academic Technical Specialist Coorous Mohtadi
"One of the key benefits of our technology is the variety of specialisttoolboxes we can offer."

Tell us a little bit about MATLAB and Simulink and how they are used in teaching and research

Coorous

MATLAB is the de facto standard as regards languages for technical computing at Universities. It’s one of the earliest languages students will be taught, particularly when it comes to programming and engineering. It can be applied to a variety of projects throughout the curriculum, and many students continue to use it as an important tool as their engineering careers progress.

Simulink is a platform for Model Based Design, which is used primarily for modelling, simulation and to understand the behaviours of various dynamical systems. As students progress to final year projects they often use MATLAB and Simulink in combination. Both MATLAB and Simulink are used for research across a variety of different disciplines, not only engineering but life sciences, earth sciences and applied mathematics.

One of the key benefits of our technology is the variety of specialist toolboxes we can offer. We have a number of ‘core’ toolboxes that are used by undergraduates, but it’s when those students move on to postgraduate research that our software really comes into its own. Post grads can undertake highly specialised projects without needing to spend time writing their own programs – leaving them free to focus on their research while working on a tried and tested platform that delivers quick, highly accurate results.

What role does Academia and student support play in your business model

Coorous

MATLAB was initially developed by our co-founder Cleve Moler as a tool to allow students to deal with the problems of linear algebra at a much higher level than was possible with earlier languages such as FORTRAN. Our corporate mission is to produce software that helps to accelerate the pace of engineering and science across the board, and academia is very much at the heart of that.

Chris

We’re currently on a multi-year mission to make MATLAB and Simulink more accessible to all users. An important element of this mission is our ‘Student Suite’, which offers essentially the same software that our business and industry customers use, but in a package and price point that makes sense for students.

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"Responding to feedback from students and educators is a vital elementof our development process."

How much input do you receive from students and educators when it comes to developing your student software

Coorous

Responding to feedback from students and educators is a vital element of our development process. To give one example of how this has influenced our service, since 2012 we’ve made it possible to program hardware such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino directly through MATLAB and Simulink. This means that students now have an opportunity to go through the same workflow that professional engineers in theaerospace and automotive industries employ. Consequently, when they’re entering the workplace after their studies, they can demonstrate practical experience working with MATLAB and using it to program hardware for use in project work.

You also run a lot of student competitions. How important are initiatives like this to MathWorks

Coorous

The purpose of our competitions is to provide a safe, controlled environment in which students can closely replicate the experience of working as an industrial engineer. They have the opportunity to work to very tight specifications as part of a collaborative team, employing skills such as prototyping, simulation and calculation in a practical context.

Working towards something that allows you to go through a process of trial and error with a tangible objective at the end is often where the most important learning takes place. Ten minutes of real time engineering can often teach you more than hours of classroom-based learning. Creating an arena where students can learn how to use our software properly is therefore hugely important to us.

"Ten minutes of real time engineering can often teach you more thanhours of classroom-based learning."
"Employers are looking for people who can demonstrate practicalexperience of the engineering tools and processes they’ll be using on a dailybasis"

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing engineering students in the UK today?

Chris

There’s a significant demand at the moment for engineering students to go into employment or further research, which is obviously good news for graduates. The challenge is that all of these companies are looking for people who are going to be able to hit the ground running and demonstrate practical experience of the tools and processes they’ll be using on a daily basis. Students really need to make sure that they’re getting that practical experience both within and outside their regular studies.

As an employer, what does MathWorks offer to attract and support young digital talent

Chris

Thanks to our close working relationships with various University departments across the country, we’re able to engage with young and upcoming talent in a variety of ways. We sponsor several PHD studentships, forming strong links not only with the students themselves but also with their departments.

We also take on a number of interns who work closely with our engineers, getting a really solid experience of what it’s like working in the commercial software industries. Then of course there are our student competitions and other outreach activities, all of which are geared towards letting students know who we are, that we have a strong UK presence and that we’re actively looking for talented PHD graduates to come in and join our team.

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"Early experiences are really important because they feed into thedecisions children make about their future study paths."

Coding and electronic engineering are increasingly vital tools in the UK workplace. What can the government and businesses be doing to better promote these skills

Chris

I think the key thing is getting kids started early and letting them see that engineering, electronics and computing are exciting disciplines that can be very creative as well as very technical. Those early experiences are really important because they feed into the decisions children make about their own study paths. If they don’t keep going with Maths, Physics and the Sciences at A Level, so many engineering options are effectively closed to them, and it’s very hard to go back after that point.

At MathWorks we support a number of government initiatives aimed at making maths and physics more appealing to young people. For example, we have partnerships with facilities like the London Science Museum and Cambridge Science Centre, places that give children positive, hands on experiences of maths, science and engineering.

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What advice would you give to a relative digital novice who was interested in getting started in engineering and computing

Coorous

My advice would be to work with hardware – build some simple circuits, experiment with development kits, write a few lines of code. When you start at the application – seeing an LED light up or a motor start moving for example – then engineering really starts to come to life. Learning about the physics and mathematics behind these projects will come with time, but if you’re a novice I think it’s much more valuable to jump in at the deep end and start feeding your interest with small personal projects.

What tools and platforms would you recommend to people looking to take the leap into computing and engineering

Chris

Low-cost hardware platforms are really proliferating at the moment – tools like Raspberry Pi and Arduino and their accompanying extensions and plug-on boards are now really affordable and widely available. I’d advise using one of these platforms to do a bit of simple ‘plug and play’ and basic scripting, just to prove to yourself that you can do it. Then when you’re a bit more confident, start attaching your work to a fully fledged environment and try out some more ambitious projects. You’ll find yourself achieving incredible results really quickly, which will hopefully spur you to keep pushing yourself even further.

Finally, what innovations or trends would you like to see in the digital space in the next few years?

Chris

One exciting trend we’re seeing at the moment is primary schools introducing proper computing programs, largely thanks to the new curriculum. It doesn’t particularly matter what programming environment they engage with first, the crucial thing is that they’re being taught to think in a computational way and encouraged to build on that experience year on year. This means more students coming into secondary education already knowing how to program and write basic code, making them much more likely to engage with computing and electronics in further education.

Coorous

I’d like to see even more student engagement with hardware and electronics through things like robotics challenges and design competitions. The opportunity to gain that hands-on experience and professional feedback outside the classroom environment makes a huge difference both for the students themselves and for the engineering community as a whole.

Find out more about various MATLAB and Simulink projects by exploring our dedicated MathWorks space in theelement14 Community.