“There was typically stuff lying everywhere. You could hardly walk without tripping over something,” the electrical and computer engineering lecturer said with a laugh. “But my parents were still very supportive. My dad would get me batteries, electrical motors, whatever I was looking for.”
Then, as a young teen, he built his own HAM radio. “From my room in Southgate, I picked up a short-wave station in Ecuador. Then I found the BBC, broadcasting from London,” he said. “As I listened to these stations from around the world, I noticed that some were louder than the others and sometimes I’d hear a little bit of noise or interference. I was fascinated by what was causing the difference, and how these waves were bringing all of this information into my room.”
As an adult, Steffka—who works as an expert in electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) for General Motors Company—still focuses on how those waves provide communication. But today he is helping revolutionize the industry and teaching UM-Dearborn students along the way. The goal of EMC is to correct unwanted effects—like electromagnetic interference, static and equipment damage—in an environment where electromagnetic energy is generated.
He’s the guy who—in the 1990s when cars started relying on computer technology—would make sure that FM/AM radios worked without static from all of the electrical components causing interference when they transmitted waves.
And he’s one of the first who taught UM-Dearborn students about the emerging EMC field on campus when Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Emeritus and former Associate Provost M. Shridhar was seeking out a professional to add electromagnetic interference suppression knowledge into the ECE curriculum.
“Mark did an outstanding job introducing EMC to our undergraduate students and subsequently offered the graduate course on EMC,” said Shridhar, who said Steffka also assisted with getting the EMC program started by helping secure a $10,000 grant from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “Currently, the course EMC 319—which Mark still teaches—is one of the most popular electives in our electrical engineering program. Mark is consistently rated as an outstanding professor.”
For his dedication to students and to his field, Steffka (’81 B.S.E.) was recently awarded the 2016 Laurence G. Cumming Award for Outstanding Service, the IEEE EMC Society’s highest distinction.
“I was incredibly honored and very surprised,” said Steffka. “I was always interested in electrical components and radio waves, but I could have never imagined anything like this happening.”
Steffka, who applied to only UM-Dearborn for his undergraduate education, said he was impressed by the engineering co-op program. But, once he got here, there was something else that motivated him—a campus HAM Radio.
“My second semester on campus, I saw a giant antenna on top of the Engineering Lab Building (ELB). I followed the wire all the way around the building until I could see where it went in. There was a small room that had HAM Radio equipment. I ended up spending a lot of time there,” he said. “My first co-op was with a company that made short-wave transmitters, Collins Radio in Iowa. I believe I got that job because I was familiar with their product—the HAM Radio on campus was branded Collins Radio. That gave me my start.”
With his 30-plus year career researching and designing aerospace, military and automotive wave-based equipment—one where he’s been granted several United States’ patents for EMC-related inventions—Steffka is eager to share what he’s learned with the next generation of professionals.
Steffka has had authorship of papers and presentations for technical conferences. He’s written a book. And he was selected as an IEEE Distinguished Lecturer, where he was able to speak at conferences around the world.
“I have been so fortunate to be able to contribute back to my chosen profession,” he said. “I’m glad I also get the opportunity to contribute on this campus—right where I started.”
After teaching his Thursday evening class, standing in an ELB classroom where he once was a student, Steffka reflected on how fortunate he was to have seen the EMC industry emerge and become an increasingly important part of daily life, and to able to have an impact on the education of others in the field.
“The whole aspect of wireless communication systems integration into all electrical or electronic devices is coming soon. As an engineer, being able to know how these work together is critical,” he said.
The industry change is even shown in class enrollment. In 2000, Steffka had six to eight students a semester in EMC 319; now he has more than 30 in his lecture and lab-based course.
“This university was ahead of the curve when they began offering courses on the subject 16 years ago and we are ready to prepare our students for what the future brings,” he said. “As I tell my students, I went to this campus and it gave me skills that I still use today. I want to give them all the tools they can have to be successful, to serve them for the rest of their lives.”