VxWorks in Education: University of São Paulo, Brazil – Part 1

By Bill Graham

Graham_lg USP-EESCWind River regularly contributes to education programs across the globe. One of these institutions is the University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil. They are doing some amazing things with VxWorks and Wind River products play a big role in research and education in their engineering programs. In the next few posts I have transcribed an interview with Professor Glauco Caurin who teaches in robotics, mechatronics and mechanical engineering at USP's São Carlos Engineering School:

Q: Can you tell us about University of São Paulo and the São Carlos Engineering School?

The University of São Paulo (USP) is the largest institution dedicated to higher education and research in Brazil. It is responsible for approximately 25% of the Brazilian scientific research.

USP is composed of seven campuses, 40 learning and research units, five hospitals, five museums, five specialized institutes, besides multiple experimental laboratories and centers of scientific and cultural diffusion. It offers approximately 700 regular courses. There are 230 undergraduate courses and an average of 5,500 students graduate annually. There over 500 fields for possible graduate studies at USP (MAs and PhDs).

São Carlos is the Campus where I work. Here we have 4 Institutes:

•    São Carlos School of Engineering – EESC

•    Institute of Mathematics and Computer Sciences – ICMC

•    São Carlos Institute of Physics – IFSC

•    São Carlos Chemistry Institute – IQSC

The School of Engineering is the oldest of them. The EESC began its activity in 1953. We admit 450 students every year that are distributed in the 10 different Engineering fields and one Architecture course. On average, at EESC, one in 20 candidates is selected for admission.

Q: Can you tell us more about yourself? Where did you grow up, where did you attend University and how did you end up teaching at USP?

I grew up in São Carlos where I was born in 1966. From 1984 to 1988 I studied at EESC and received a diploma in Mechanical Engineering. In 1989 I moved to Europe because at that time there was a special program sponsored by the Brazilian Presidency fostering strategic fields like Robotics and Mechatronics. I worked for 5.5 years at the prestigious ETH Zurich, Switzerland concluding  a specialization in Mechatronics and a PhD in Robotics. At the ETH I got in contact with real time operating systems for the first time. 

Back to Brazil in 1995 I worked several years in the administration of different Universities in São Paulo City. The job was nice, well paid for Brazilian standards, but I was not extremely motivated. Therefore, in 2002, I decided to come back to the Laboratory and to do more research projects. I passed the selection process for USP (became a State Government Employee) and combined the previous experience with these new challenges. We started, in 2003, a new course in Mechatronics Engineering, which provided 50 additional places for students at EESC.

Q: Professor Caurin, you mentioned to me that you are trying to teach something new in Brazilian engineering curriculum and that is the development of new products. Can you tell us more about this initiative? Why do you think it’s an important part of an engineering program?

Since the 1960’s when the first automotive companies start to build cars in Brazil the engineering curricula in the country were focused on processes and their optimization, i.e. finding best compromises between low costs and high quality. In my opinion, our engineers have been very competitive so far, because currently there are 25 different companies building automotive vehicles in our country. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this is not enough to put Brazil in a leading position worldwide. We are still missing a more aggressive position of being able to develop and produce our own technological products. Products that are more related to our way of life, local necessities and also compatible wih the local prices. And this culture shift is exactly what we are trying to change in our education program at EESC – USP.

We are trying also to convince our students that they should consider the possibility to establish their own business as an alternative to the conventional way of looking for a job after graduation.

Q: USP is part of an academic program that Wind River offers to universities to provide software for students and faculty to use for education and research. First can you tell us about the courses that USP uses Wind River software for?

Yes, we are using Wind River products for research and education purposes in the Mechatronic Engineering program. In particular we have a course called "Development of Mechatronic Products" [which uses VxWorks and other Wind River products]. At this stage of the engineering program the students have already worked with professional tools for the development of mechanical subsystems and electric-electronical subsystems. Also in this program we concentrate on professional tools for the development of the software subsystems. It is important to mention that we further restrict our scope to products that use/require embedded software. This program is something new for Brazil. Outside the Universities, several companies insist on building systems from scratch and never use a RTOS, or commercial BSPs. Doing things this way, these companies will be never competitive globally. We have experienced a very bad example (case study) of this kind of approach in Brazil some years ago with the Brazilian Satellite Launcher program. Our intention is to create and offer a new generation of professionals.

Q:  Can you tell us some of the basic principles you teach in these courses? Why is it important for students to learn these using commercial products?

There are not big secrets in what we are teaching. I am using a text book for real time systems and presenting basic concepts like OS kernels, scheduling, task communication, hardware aspects, determinism, etc. Additionally, we give the students some introductory notions on version control and software engineering.

What is different in the course is that we try to implement as many practical projects as possible, making the concepts clear real for the students. We also use robotic applications to motivate them.

I our opinion, commercial products are very important, because they give reliability to the education process. If something goes wrong, the students knows the problem is likely in their own code [since it usually unlikely in proven commercial software]. There is nothing to complain about in the IDE [e.g. Wind River Workbench]. There are no excuses. There is significant amount of supporting material available on the web. Also the number of commercial products that use the RTOS motivates the students to learn something new. They see potential business and even jobs in the future.

Q: How is the government involved in the founding of research in engineering in Brazil. What types of projects does the government tend to fund?

This is a very complicated question to answer when we consider the size of our country and the big differences that we experience [in Brazil]. But I will try to answer it in two parts:

First of all USP is a State University, and the Sao Paulo State is the richest state in Brazil. The state assigns a fixed part of our taxes to a Foundation called FAPESP where researchers, entrepreneurs, and small companies can ask for funding for research projects. They say that this model was copied from the NSF (National Science Foundation) in USA.

Second there is still the possibility to be funded by our federal budget, from the Brazilian Science Foundation, CNPq. Here the competition is bigger, but it is still possible to succeed. In the case of the training courses we are attending in the USA in July, the budget came from CNPq.

…to be continued