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Faculty profile: Steve Robinson

Stephen M. Robinson

Stephen M. Robinson (13K JPG)

Maximizing performance in the face of unavoidable barriers

Although his army career took him as far away as Korea and Vietnam at certain times, few can boast a more lasting connection to UW-Madison than Professor Steve Robinson.

The son of Arthur Robinson, a UW-Madison professor of geography from 1945 to 1980, Stephen Robinson, at age 16, launched his own university career at the campus computing center, helping tend its single, room-sized computer. He was a graduate student and administrator of the Army-sponsored Mathematics Research Center when it was bombed in 1970 by Vietnam War protestors; the pages of a book open on his desk that day are still darkened from the explosion.

Almost 15 years before joining the faculty in 1972, Robinson taught his first UW-Madison class — a summer course in numerical analysis — as an undergraduate. "When you stop to think about it, that was nearly 50 years ago," he says with a smile.

One of the world's foremost researchers in the field of decision science and operations research, Robinson has recently shown his dedication to the university in yet another way: by donating $25,000 to his department to help start a graduate fellowship fund.

Steve Robinson

Robinson (1967) (13K JPG)

Nonresident engineering graduate students who carry a full credit load at UW-Madison pay nearly $12,000 in tuition each semester.

And few students, says Professor Steve Robinson, can afford to pay the entire bill without additional funding. "We get many of our best graduate students from outside Wisconsin — and indeed, from outside the United States — because many able U.S. students don't choose to do graduate work in science and engineering, particularly at the PhD level," he says. "Therefore, in order to attract excellent graduate students, especially for PhD study, we must find ways to support them."

While experienced students can contribute to research programs as paid research assistants, such positions generally aren't appropriate for new graduate students, says Robinson. "That leaves fellowships and scholarships as the best solution to funding students at the beginning of their studies," he says.

Because Robinson has seen firsthand that investing in the best graduate students raises the bar for an entire academic program, he donated $25,000 to start a fund that would enable the ISyE department to recruit and support top-notch grad students.

Robinson hopes his "starter" gift will motivate faculty, alumni or friends of the college to build on the fund. "What I gave isn't enough to do anything substantial," he says. "If others chip in, we might be able to put together a fund of a size that would make a difference."

"We're extremely fortunate to have Steve with us," says Chair Harry Steudel. "Not simply because of his commitment to graduate education, but because as one of the top people in his discipline, he could go absolutely anywhere and yet he has chosen to stay here."

Robinson's major research thrust is the development of quantitative methods for making the best use of scarce resources, such as money, equipment, or people's time. Much of his work has focused on finding ways to maximize the performance of systems in the face of unavoidable constraints and barriers — a field of applied mathematics known as optimization. His research has always included a strong economic component, as well.

"Most of these problems involve economizing on something, whether it's money or something else," he says. "You're always having to deal with trade-offs, with limited resources, and with not getting everything you want."

Lately, he and graduate student Julien Granger have been tackling much more complex problems involving systems whose components are highly variable. The example Robinson gives is of an airfield, where airplanes land, receive maintenance, and take off again.

The airfield manager wants to improve the efficiency of the servicing operations but has a limited amount of money to do so. What makes this optimization problem sticky, says Robinson, is the uncertainty involved. For example, the rate at which planes land at the airfield varies; sometimes many arrive at once, sometimes only a few. Different planes require different types of services, which take varying amounts of time to perform. And planes move through the servicing pattern in different ways. "Everything is variable," Robinson says. "So, the question is, 'How do you spend the money?'"

Although the research has just begun, Robinson and Granger believe they have discovered a better means to answer that question than the current tool of computer simulation. Simulations involve building a virtual airfield inside a computer; making a change to airfield's configuration, such as altering maintenance equipment or increasing personnel; running planes through the airfield many, many times; and measuring the effect of the new configuration upon the system's performance. The entire process is then repeated as many times as necessary with different configurations.

In place of this time-consuming approach, Granger has developed a way to use mathematical equations to simply and accurately predict how each proposed change will affect performance. Not only will the new method find the optimal configurations without having to actually test each one through simulation but, "We can also understand a lot more about proposed changes in general, and perhaps figure out how to find the best ones more efficiently," says Robinson.

Steve Robinson

Robinson, circa 1983 (15K JPG)

For Robinson, such problems haven't existed solely within the theoretical world of the computer; he also encountered them daily during his years of military service.

"My time as a professional soldier gave me an appreciation for complex operations, and some of the difficulties people face when they have to do things in a hurry and without much preparation," he says.

While earning a BS in mathematics from UW-Madison, Robinson became commissioned as an ROTC officer. Finding that he liked the army, he sought and was granted a regular U.S. Army commission upon graduating in 1962. After earning a MS in mathematics from New York University in 1963, he spent a year in Korea as an officer in an anti-aircraft battery.

Given his soft-spoken and polite demeanor, it's hard to imagine Robinson in the role he chose next: as a member of the Army's elite Special Forces. Attracted, he says, to the regiment's "good people" and "high standards," he underwent training and then spent nearly two years as part of the Special Forces in Vietnam. The many honors he received for his military service include the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

When his tour of duty ended in 1968, Robinson, now married, was ready to leave active duty for academia and a stable family life (though he remained an officer in the Reserve and retired in 1993 as a colonel). After teaching mathematics for a year at the military academy at West Point, he returned to UW-Madison in 1969. He earned a PhD in computer sciences in '71, and joined the computer sciences faculty in '72, adding an appointment in industrial engineering a couple of years later. And, he concludes simply, "I've been here ever since."

Now as he approaches the end of his career, Robinson views dwindling state support for higher education as one of the greatest challenges facing the university. It's one of the reasons he has given his gift to ISyE to launch a fellowship program — a fund he hopes the department can one day use to support incoming graduate students during their first couple of years of coursework. Precious and hard-to-obtain federal research dollars could then be used to fund students only when they are finished with classes and fully prepared to make a solid contribution as apprentice researchers, he asserts.

It's hard not to notice how Robinson has once again worked out a way to make the best use of scarce resources.


ISyE NEWS is published twice a year for alumni and other friends of the UW-Madison Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. This publication is paid for with private funds.

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Date last modified: Thursday, 30-Jun-2005 11:49:13 CDT
Date created: 30-Jun-2005