Sometimes it is Just Really Easy

Many of my good friends will tell you that I am not particularly good at telling a short story. I seem to remember too many details and get obsessed with sharing them all. Once-in-a-while, I tell one of my stories and a really clever student hears it and does something amazing. Such experiences obviously do not discourage me from taking my time to get to my point. The story that I would like to tell now has two parts because telling it one time gave it a second chapter. I will begin the story at chapter two.

In my early years at RPI, the Plasma Lab (where my wonderful colleagues, students and I got to have great fun doing diagnostics for nuclear fusion experiments for 35+ years), was located in the MRC Building because we were part of what was then the EEE Division (Electrophysics and Electronic Engineering) … basically the physics side of electrical engineering. The drinking age was 18 so we regularly had a keg every Friday afternoon. Weather permitting, we drank at the loading dock, but other times in the lab. Most of the building, which also housed Materials Science and Engineering (still does) contributed in some way to the cost of the beer and everyone drank their share. This allowed everyone to wind down at the end of the week. (Note that it was possible at that time to get a temporary liquor license for on campus parties, which we did religiously every week.)

The general camaraderie led everyone to tell stories. One of the stories that I told had to do with a special experience I had as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin. When I was a junior EE student, I worked as a researcher in a solid state lab run by Professors Al Scott and Jim Nordman. They were two great people to work for. As an undergrad, I did not work directly for either of them but rather for one of Jim’s students Juris Afanasjevs. (See their letter in the November 1967 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE for the project I worked on.) Juris was quite the character. In addition to his talents as an engineer, he was also a good musician, playing the organ with Bach being among his favorite composers. (This is how I remember things … I have since learned too often that my memories are always a little faulty. However, I think I have most of this correct.) The EE department had a UNIVAC computer at the time, which was not heavily used because so few students and faculty knew how to program it. One day, after hours, Juris decided we should program it to play music (specifically Bach). The only outputs computers in that era produced were blinking lights, so he set out to program the lights and then connect amplifiers to them to make it possible to hear the tones produced. I had some programming skills but this was his idea and I helped only as he directed me. He was ultimately successful in producing some music which really amazed me. My point in telling the story was to show that there were always opportunities to do some fun things with technology if one had the skills, access to equipment and a willingness to do things without asking permission. We did not do anything really unsafe, but the computer was pretty expensive and not supposed to be used in this manner.

At the Friday session where I told the story was Dave Ellis, who was one of the many undergrads I recruited to work in the Plasma Lab. In Dave’s case, I hired him to help take care of our Data General Minicomputer, which was one of my responsibilities in the lab. The computer was purchased before I was hired at RPI and I had to attend two weeks of training at Data General headquarters in the Boston area to learn how best to use it and train others. This had a big impact on my computer knowledge and the minicomputer was one of the most important tools we had to do Heavy Ion Beam Probe system design. Dave was absurdly smart (his roommate John Barthel said it was like living with the answer book), and had a great career working with Steve Schoenberg at SIXNET cut short by an all-to-early death. No one who worked with Dave forgot the experience. He is really missed.

Other stories were told that day but my computer music story apparently inspired Dave. The next morning I came in to use the computer (we scheduled it 24/7 because it was so essential to our work). When I booted it up, I found some new files, one of which was called ‘Suicide,’ which you might imagine was a bit unnerving. However, when I ran it, I discovered that it played the theme song from MASH, ‘Suicide is Painless.’ (A reference to the story behind this song by Michael Bingham [another of my great students] on Facebook – see – inspired me to finally write this down.) Elsewhere on the computer I found several more songs Dave had programmed, all done since we ended the party Friday night. He was the kind of student we only had to suggest something to and it would get done. All the grad students made excellent use of his talents when they were doing their simulation studies on the computer. I have always encouraged my students to be very independent, even suggesting that if they never break anything they are not trying hard enough. Dave knew this even before he came to work in the lab. He was so great to have around that we supported him as an undergrad and as a grad as her pursued two masters degrees (one in EE and one in CS). It was during this time, I think, that he started to work for Steve.

Throughout my career as an educator, I have been very fortunate to know a lot of great students. Very few had Dave’s native talent, but I have enjoyed working with everyone who grew both as engineers and people. When I was a grad student, there were other students who were absurdly bright like Dave, who really added to my own personal education. Never hesitate to find such people, especially the nice ones, and learn as much as you can. The experience, while often very humbling, is definitely worth it.

The Tinkering Thinker

Recently, I helped to give two workshops at Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico on the use of personal instrumentation (e.g. Digilent’s Analog Discovery, National Instruments myDAQ and their version of Analog Discovery 2, Analog Devices ADALM 1000 …) in the teaching of circuits and electronics. In attendance were great people from all of the engineering schools on the island. They were really engaged and asked wonderful questions, even though several were uncomfortable working exclusively in English.

One of the best questions I was asked has helped me to formulate what is, I hope, a very productive way of framing the discussion of how best to educate engineers. I was trying to make the case for Experiment Centric Pedagogy (ECP), for which the guiding hypothesis is that students and instructors are more motivated and engaged and engineering education works best in a learning environment where experimentation plays a central role. This is in contrast to  the traditional STEM classroom: the lecture hall, occasionally augmented with separate labs provided as expensive limited access facilities permit.

Engineers must tinker with ideas but, unfortunately, modern technology is so complex that tinkering has generally become too difficult. (There is an excellent article on the early days of the Mobile Studio Project in the Sept 24, 2007 issue of EETimes on this topic.) Those of us old enough to have developed our interests in electronics and electrical phenomena in the 1950’s were lucky enough to work mostly with discrete components (tubes!) which allowed for a lot of tinkering and shocks and burns.

The question raised at the Turabo workshop had to do with Thinking vs Tinkering. Traditional, lecture-based instruction requires students and instructors to think their way through a subject and the questioner was concerned that student tinkering may just be a trial and error effort to find an approach that involves little or no thinking. I certainly agree that I have, for example, seen students randomly make a bunch of attempts with a spreadsheet to solve a problem without really learning what they did and why it worked. The best scenario is that they know how to repeat what they did in the same way that they work their way through a video game. However, in spite of what often happens, tinkering and thinking are not exclusive activities.

Let’s look at tinkering a little differently and ask the following questions: Can we get a tinkerer to think or can we get a thinker to tinker and which is better? That is, should our students be Thinking Tinkerers or Tinkering Thinkers? From the title of this posting, it should be obvious what I think. It is also what nearly everyone I know says (so far anyway) when I ask them to choose. Whether or not we recognize that we are asking our students to apply the scientific method, we all work hard to get our students to predict what is going to happen (hypothesis) before they do an experiment (testing). Again, what we see too often is students cranking through a task list without stopping to think about what they are doing and why. That is why thinking comes first and we have the Tinkering Thinker.

Voltage Divider Circuit (Wikipedia) & Breadboard Version ( 

An example of ECP: One of the most ubiquitous and useful circuits is the voltage divider, which I will use to show an example of ECP in action. The goal of ECP is to think our way through the process of understanding how a particular circuit works by tinkering with it both experimentally and using simulation. The process could be shown as a flow chart, but I would rather keep it more informal than that.

  1. What is a voltage divider? Look it up on Wikipedia or in a textbook. The former approach seems like the most common these days. It is also very often possible to find good videos on topics like this. I have done a bunch on the voltage divider … more on that at the end of this example.
    1. From available information, find the circuit Diagram and what it looks like when it is built? The two figures above show examples of each.
    2. What is the formula that characterizes its operation? A common question because the first thing needed is how is it analyzed or how do we use it?  In Wikipedia, the relationship between the output and input voltages is given as  V_\mathrm{out} = \frac{R_2}{R_1+R_2} \cdot V_\mathrm{in}
  2. Build one and see what it does? Before doing any analysis, build one and try it.
    1. It has to be built correctly and data collected correctly, so some basic experimental skills are necessary. Build the circuit … connect the sinusoidal voltage source (aka function generator) … measure accurately both the input and output voltages. It is almost always necessary to measure both.
    2. How do measurements compare with the ideal formula? Are there any data features that do not agree with formula? Is the formula general enough? What happens when we add a load? What happens if it works well with 1kΩ resistors but not if it is made with 1MΩ resistors?
  3. Simulations do not show noise unless it is specifically added. Simulations are usually more ideal than experiments. Simulate it to see if there are any things left out in the ideal formula? This can be done with any version of the SPICE program. LT-Spice from Linear Systems, is a good choice because it is free.
    1. When this is done, it is seen that the simple divider seems OK. Maybe this verifies that simulation is being done properly in addition to showing us what the voltage divider does in an ideal world.
    2. Voltage dividers have no purpose unless we connect something to them to read the output voltage. Does adding a load affect its operation? It should be observed that loading does make the divider work differently, just as it did experimentally, except without the noise.
  4. Go back to the basic reference used and see how the formula is derived. What are the assumptions? Are any violated with loading?
    1. Basic analysis is based on Ohm’s Law and that the current in both resistors is the same (the resistors are in series). This is clearly not the case with a load, but, if the load resistance is 100 times R2, it will have no noticeable impact on the operation of the circuit.
    2. Analysis with load — eureka! Since adding the load resistor does not really make the analysis much more difficult (R2 is replaced by the parallel combination of R2 and the load resistor), a new formula can be derived that does a very good job of predicting the output voltage.
  5. Go back to the experiment and look at non-ideal characteristics that occur with different resistances, voltage levels, frequency, etc. Determine the limits for application of the ideal model. This and the preceding steps are addressed in a series of videos I made for my Electronic Instrumentation class. Watch the first three videos for the topics addressed here: 

Goodbye, Podium: an Engineering Course Puts Theory Into Practice

The following was originally published 1 October 2012 in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

I don’t do lectures anymore. Not in the usual sense. And I’ve never had so much fun teaching.

If I get an idea at home for my electronics-instrumentation class, I plug my Mobile Studio IOBoard—a small, inexpensive circuit board that allows students to do multiple electronics tasks without a lot of bulky equipment—into my laptop. I then build a circuit activity, record a lecture, add a paper-and-pencil exercise and an appropriate computer model, and I’m all done. I don’t have to wait until I get to the campus and find an open time in my lab. I can even ask a TA or a former student or a colleague at another university for feedback. The students can carry out their experiments anywhere, I can do my work anywhere, and I can get help from anyone because we all have the same set of simple, mobile learning tools.

Students get the same lectures I would give in person, but the focus is on doing things with the information rather than sitting passively and watching someone else demonstrate. When we meet for a two-hour session, they’ve already listened to the lecture, sketched out a circuit diagram, done some calculations. They’re ready to build and test a circuit at their desks, or may have done part of the activity at home. The recorded lectures become one more tool for the students to consult to help them through the experiments. One of my friends who teaches at a university in Utah won’t let students into her electromagnetic-theory class until they prove they’ve watched the lecture; they also have to bring proof that they’ve done the reading and some kind of homework.

The whole point is to use the class time well.

When students complete a lab experiment at home or in a staffed lab on campus, they come to class better able to explain what they’ve done and why they think the approach is correct, and to provide explanations or questions about any problems they encountered.

What is so cool is that the learning experience has all the key aspects of the complete engineering-design cycle—no matter where the students do the work. The combination of traditional paper-and-pencil calculations, simulation, and experimentation leading to a practical system model makes it possible for them to think and act much more like practicing engineers.

Here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we call this hands-on approach the Mobile Studio Project ( The concept grew out of some fantastic but hideously expensive studio classrooms (about $10,000 per seat) that RPI built in the 1990s to bring multiple engineering activities into one well-outfitted room. Each station had a full set of lab equipment, a desktop computer, and tables for taking lecture notes and doing hand calculations. There was a natural progression from introducing a topic and advancing to paper and pencil, simulation, and experiments, with breaks for group and one-on-one discussions. Maybe there was an hour of lecture or maybe 10 minutes, but after that the class would try something. More often than not, the class began with a demonstration or a hands-on activity. You’d build, you’d talk.

It was so much fun. I just loved it. We thought we’d ushered in a new way of teaching. But very few engineering schools adopted this model because it was so expensive and the studio classrooms held just 30 to 40 people. Our enrollments went up, and we had more students than we knew what to do with. The model simply was not scalable, even for us.

With the advent of laptops, we realized we didn’t need a special studio room. We could do all the activities except those that required access to lab equipment. We just had to figure out a way to add that capability to the students’ laptops. We tried a variety of existing options, mostly involving some kind of inexpensive data-acquisition board, but either they did not have the functionality we needed or they were much too expensive. And then we discovered we were at one of those magical crossroads where it became possible to imagine that every engineering student could be given his or her own personal mobile electronics laboratory.

What happened? A combination of better and cheaper electronics, strong leadership, and financial support from the National Science Foundation and industry led Rensselaer—with help from Howard University and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology—to develop the Mobile Studio.

The latest version of the Mobile Studio hardware costs about $150 per student—cheap enough that every engineering student gets his or her own board. (For information on acquiring the hardware, visit the project’s Web site.) So now we can take a studio approach in any decent classroom. More important, when students learn with Mobile Studio, their homework and test scores go up and learning improves, as documented by the University at Albany Evaluation Consortium, which provides independent assessment of research and pedagogy.

The most exciting results come from synthesis questions in which students are required, for example, to design a circuit with a specific functionality. Students who work with the Mobile Studio have significantly higher scores than those who do not.

Students can pursue their own ideas, build something, and then try it either just for their own satisfaction or, in my class, for more points. This style of teaching closely resembles the way engineers do their jobs and allows the students to achieve understanding based on what they do best.

Once students could do labs at home, the new technology suddenly opened up dimensions we hadn’t thought of before. Courses that never had lab experiments have them now. For example, mechanical- and civil-engineering majors learn circuits through minilabs that might last 20 minutes. Students can now be asked to do homework involving hardware. They can also tinker at their own projects.

As I said, if I get an idea at home, I just set up my Mobile Studio, build the circuit, and see what happens. I don’t have to wait for the classroom. This is the direction in which engineering education is going. New modes of delivery made possible by an ever increasing array of products will make the present way we teach unrecognizable. I might never need to stand behind a podium again.

A Dialog on Mobile Studio

The following was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of ECE Source and co-authored by Mohamed Chouikha of Howard University

Can you give us a little background on Mobile Studio? What is its history? What are its cost and capabilities?

The Mobile Studio is a small, inexpensive hardware platform for use in a home, classroom or remote environment. When coupled with the Mobile Studio Desktop software, the system duplicates a large amount of the hardware often used to teach electronics intensive courses in ECE and other STEM disciplines (e.g. scopes, function generators, spectrum analyzers, etc.). The goal is to enable hands-on exploration of STEM education principles, devices, and systems that have historically been restricted to expensive laboratory facilities.


The Mobile Studio was the brainchild of Don Millard, who presently serves as a Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at NSF. In 1999, he was at RPI, where he was looking for a way to make Studio Pedagogy work more effectively and much more affordably. Studio instruction, developed at RPI primarily in the 1990s and used in essentially all of the core electrical and computer engineering courses (for which RPI’s ECSE Dept. received the ECEDHA Innovative Program Award in 2001), was found to be a very good way to deliver engineering education, especially in ECE programs, and attracted a steady stream of visitors all of whom went away hoping they could implement something similar. However, with very few exceptions, none were successful because the costs were so high. In round numbers, the facilities necessary to provide lectures, paper and pencil problem solving, numerical simulation and traditional experiments all in the same room, cost about $10k per seat, which is just not practical.

Don’s vision for a new, inexpensive studio for teaching electronics was based on replacing the very expensive standard set of instruments found on a typical lab bench (scope, power supplies, function generators, multi-meters, etc.). He hoped that someone was selling something he could use for this purpose, but nothing he found met his needs. His next step was to design and build a small board that could duplicate the functionality he needed. With the help of Analog Devices and Doug Mercer (an ADI fellow who graduated from RPI in ’77), an amazing RPI student (Jason Coutermarsh, who now works for ADI), funding from NSF and Hewlett-Packard, and the help and support of a growing, but small number of true believers (including the authors of this piece), he went through several designs, with varying degrees of success, until what is called the RED2 board became generally available in 2008. Earlier designs (including RED and BLUE) showed that his idea works very well, but were, as a colleague at Rose-Hulman has said, not quite ready for prime time. The RED2 board had all the necessary functionality required and the robust design to survive regular usage by undergrads. Information on all three boards, along with the software necessary to run them, etc. can be found at All three boards were designed by RPI personnel (Don and Jason, primarily, who also arranged for and supervised their manufacture). The cost of each was about the same as a textbook or about $150.

How difficult is it to adapt existing experiments to Mobile Studio? How much effort is required for a trial run? Are there any limitations in developing experiments vs. standard equipment? Are students able to use standard equipment after learning on Mobile Studio?

Because the Mobile Studio platform contains most of the instruments necessary for standard electronics experiments, adapting existing labs generally only requires a different set of instructions because the wires have to go to different places. It is also the case that the instruments available through Mobile Studio do not have the bandwidth or dynamic range of more expensive, standard instruments, so some experiments must be modified to work at lower power or under 200kHz. This is generally not a big issue because most basic circuits and electronics are best taught in the audio range anyway. It is possible to modify the experiments in an existing course, over the term of a semester, without the need for special outside work. This has been done at several universities, including, most recently, UW-Madison. A short description of the innovations they are pursuing in engineering education are described in their annual report which includes a short section on Mobile Studio.


An example of the efficacy, ease and immediate results of the Mobile Studio approach is a trial session done several years ago at Howard University. Using a make-shift studio space, a few fold-up tables/chairs and a wireless network, the set-up took only 30 minutes and by 8:00 am the session started. Twenty students (self-organized in teams of two) participated in this activity. After a 30 minute overview of the activity (incorporating the “Filters CAD” module) with a demonstration of a working circuit (using an electric guitar as the input signal), students were given 90 minutes to construct and test their designs. All of the teams created protoboard versions of the circuit and tested them with the instrumentation, while 6 of 10 successfully demonstrated a functional circuit. The participating faculty, students and administrators were so impressed and excited with this result that the following semester the Mobile Studio was formally introduced in the junior electronics course as part of EE curriculum at Howard.

The equipment necessary for the trial run at Howard, with the exception of the guitar, fits in a standard carry-on travel bag. This makes it possible to offer workshops and outreach activities almost anywhere, as long as the participants have laptops. We have given workshops, run K-12 programs, etc. in many different countries with minimal difficulties because everything is so small. There are now universities in Africa (e.g. in Cameroon and Ethiopia), RET programs serving teachers in Native American schools (e.g. through the CIAN ERC at Arizona), community colleges, etc. all using Mobile Studio because it is so simple to create the experience anywhere and anytime. Our colleague from Morgan State – Yacob Astatke – has been particularly active in improving engineering education in his home country of Ethiopia.


One of us (KC) recently received the following question from Israel.

I came across info about the Mobile Studio h/w and s/w and went through the stuff in your site and some tutorials on YouTube. I like the idea of working with Mobile Studio which seems like an available inexpensive solution. However, I got the impression that from a student’s point of view there is not much difference between the MS and using simulation such as Matlab (that students are currently using in a communication class). After all, students are not using a real scope, function generator, or a spectrum analyzer, but rather a s/w interface which may seem similar to a Matlab simulator. Dr. Avi Silbiger, Jerusalem College of Technology.

You have done a nice job of asking one of the questions we get fairly often, but in a well-defined context. Restating your question somewhat – if students see the same information through a software interface, how is the experience really different from a simulator? In fact, there are a few very minor aspects of using the Mobile Studio that differ little from a good simulation. For example, it is possible to use one of the Arbitrary Waveform Generators to reconstruct a square wave from its harmonics and play it back directly through connections on the board to display the results on the oscilloscope. One can listen to the signals using the audio output to obtain a sense of what harmonics mean. Clearly, this can be done using Matlab. Nothing is physically connected to the board … no physical components are used … etc. However, very, very little of what we do with Mobile Studio is anything like this.

Before I get into the real differences, I will address your statement that ‘after all, students are not using a real scope, function generator or a spectrum analyzer…” As I explain to my students and everyone else who I talk to about Mobile Studio, what we have really is a collection of real instruments … just not ones in boxes with the usual knobs and displays. NI, especially, and Matlab, to a lesser extent, also struggle with the misconception that a small piece of hardware connected to a computer is less of an instrument than the big old scopes, etc. that we have used forever. I think all of us suffer somewhat because of the unfortunate name that NI gave to their control programs – Virtual Instruments or VI’s. In some of the documentation I give to my students, I carefully draw boxes around each part of the board so that they see it as a very compact collection of boxes and not just a board with lots of connections. I also point out that modern instruments are really configured largely the same way except that they are selfcontained rather than share a single computer. For example, in my radar lab, I have high frequency spectrum analyzers, network analyzers, oscilloscopes, etc., all of which I can operate remotely from my laptop because they all are Windows boxes. They are computers that look like instruments.

OK, so much for philosophy … What is the student experience like (addressing the rest of your sentence)? First, we do exactly the same experiments we did with standard instruments (mostly Agilent, with the cost of a single station greater than $10,000). We build all the basic op-amp configurations and measure the input and output voltages on the breadboards. Students get all the same experiences they have with real experiments, including dealing with noise, poor connections, power limitations, etc. All of the materials for my course are available at Once the students master the use of Mobile Studio, teaching them to use a standard oscilloscope is very simple. In fact, colleagues at Rose-Hulman have found that students learn the concept of scope measurements much more quickly with Mobile Studio than with standard equipment.


It is not just that the students have a real hardware experience in the classroom, essentially identical to what we got in the past with standard scopes, etc., what is really powerful is that each student is given a full set of tools similar to those used by practicing engineers. I discuss this in a document I give them called Differentiators and Integrators (available on the course website in which I address the tools required for an engineering design cycle which includes both simulations and experiments. Students get to work with the same kind of tools they will have on the job as they learn to be engineers. Even more important, they own these tools and can use them anytime and anywhere. Thus, the learning they do based on hardware experiments is not limited to a classroom they only see 2 or 3 hours per week, but can be continued at home and with friends. Note that instructors also have the freedom to try ideas out at home in little more space than it takes for one’s computer. Check out the article I just wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Ed on this topic. In the end, this approach is very attractive if one believes in the value of hands-on experiments, not just simulations.

There are other programs similar to ours that we are now collaborating with. Kathleen Meehan at Virginia Tech, for example, offers Lab-In-A-Box classes that never really meet in the traditional sense. Students do all of their labs at home and then come in to demonstrate their results. They use different hardware and, ironically (given your questions), used a Matlab interface for their measurements. Thus, it really can look like a simulation on first glance, but then you see the actual experiments with all real-world characteristics included and you see that the students are having a complete learning experience.

I understand that Mobile Studio boards are no longer available but Digilent has a new product that can easily replace it. Are there any other options available if one is interested in pursuing this approach to engineering education?

We have indeed stopped manufacturing Mobile Studio hardware. However, there are still several hundred boards which can be purchased by interested parties. A better choice, though, for long-term program development, is one of the similar commercial products. The Analog Discovery board from Digilent, developed in collaboration with Analog Devices, provides the same functionality as Mobile Studio with better specs and a lower price. This seems to be the curse of the industries our graduates work in – everything must simultaneously get better and cheaper. Analog has completely revamped their excellent university program around Digilent’s board. There is an excellent video on the program on their website. The Virginia Tech Lab-In-A-Box project is now using the Digilent board. The NI myDAQ is also an excellent choice for what we are now calling Mobile Learning Platforms. Bonnie Ferri’s TESSEL Center at Georgia Tech has had great success in adding hands-on content to existing ECE courses using myDAQ. There are other products on the market, but these two provide the most extensive support infrastructure and are or are becoming widely used.

Mobile Studio, TESSEL and Lab-In-A-Box have all been supported by NSF through the CCLI (now TUES) program. A collaboration of the participants in these programs (The Center for Mobile Hands-On STEM) presently has support from TUES. The universities involved are RPI, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Howard, Morgan State, and Rose-Hulman with assessment provided by the University at Albany. Several other universities and community colleges are actively applying the pedagogy being developed at the new center. 

The Power of Partnerships

The following was originally published in the October 2014 issue of ECE Source 

Probably the best part of the ECEDHA value proposition, at least as I see it, is the opportunity the organization provides to develop friendships and partnerships with the wonderful people who fill the challenging, rewarding and, frankly, fun role of running ECE or similar departments. In my active years in ECEDHA, many heads and chairs helped me in countless ways to do my job better … much better than I would ever have been able to do alone.

The collaborative culture ECEDHA promotes is really wonderful and probably a little too unique in the business of engineering education. It shows what can be done if we think of ourselves more as a country-wide or world-wide discipline than a few hundred islands striving for excellence. It is too often the case that the talented faculty who work in our departments mostly develop and deliver the best educational experience they can without ever really interacting with their peers from other institutions.

As we all contemplate ways to improve the first year experience for ECE students, we should look for ways to build partnerships rather than each going our own way.

I have been very fortunate throughout my long career as an electrical engineering professor to work in a wide variety of very effective collaborations. In my research on particle beam based diagnostics for nuclear fusion experiments, I got to work as part of teams at places like Oak Ridge National Lab, the Universities of Texas and Wisconsin, Nagoya University in Japan, and the Ioffe Institute in Russia. In fusion diagnostics research we built up an international group of people working on the same fundamental ideas. We created quite the mutual admiration society of like-minded people who worked together to promote our collective goals. However, no matter how successful we were or how much we helped one another, we only impacted a relatively small group. Our community at its peak was less than 100.

Recently, I have become part of even more rewarding partnerships as I have transitioned my research to engineering education which has the potential to impact everyone in STEM. I think the typical successful professor has a local focus for education and more of a global focus for research. ECEDHA shows what we can do when we find an activity that can impact our entire discipline and not just power, controls, communications or circuits, etc. as large as those sub-disciplines may be. Two of the partnerships I have enjoyed being part of show the potential for collaborative efforts that can impact the first year ECE experience.

Partnership #1: When Russ Pimmel was getting ready to leave his position at NSF, he conceived of a program where engineering faculty with common educational interests could be brought together in Virtual Communities of Practice (VCP) as a mechanism for spreading research based pedagogy (aka DBER in the National Academies Press report Discipline-Based Education Research). With the help of ASEE, funding was obtained from NSF to create a small number of these interactive, collaborative communities of instructors. Lisa Huettel (Duke ECE) and I were asked to organize the VCP for Circuits in which we engaged 20 active participants from ECE programs all over the US.

We met online weekly for 90 minutes for nine weeks in Spring 2013 and followed up with additional meetings in the fall. We also shared ideas on an online portal with all technology supported by ASEE staff. Our schedule was reasonably aggressive. Our meetings addressed the following topics: Overview of Research-based Instructional Approaches, Learning Objectives and Bloom’s Taxonomy, Student Motivation, Teams and Scaffolding, Making the Classroom More Interactive, Simulation and Hands-On Learning, Assessing Impact, Great Ideas that Flopped, Course Design, Flipped Classroom and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The last topics were selected collectively by the group and included guest presentations from Cindy Furse (Utah ECE) on the Flipped Classroom and Bonnie Ferri (Georgia Tech ECE) on MOOCs.

The VCP interactions allowed participants to obtain feedback on their ideas and to explore new ideas that made it more likely that innovations they were planning would succeed. In most instances, the participants were working in something of a vacuum with few local colleagues trying anything similar. The group meetings, especially the breakout sessions, nearly always resulted in requests for additional information about ideas heard during discussions. Having someone who teaches a similar course want to duplicate or build on what one is doing helps promote success as much as hearing suggestions for improvement. There were many signs like these of a vigorous community of faculty working to improve the educational experiences of their students, with continued interactions between participants taking advantage of their expanded professional network while writing proposals, doing research and implementing research-based pedagogy in their courses.

The co-leaders also developed a solid online working relationship that served as a model for other VCP members. We did not know one another before this project and have only gotten to talk face-to-face at two ASEE meetings. In addition to sharing her knowledge of research based pedagogy with our group, Lisa also gave us an excellent opportunity to learn about the curriculum overhaul Duke underwent about several years ago for which the cornerstone was a theme-based introductory course entitled Fundamentals of ECE. Their efforts show how the first year experience can be improved as part of a major curriculum update. While she and her colleagues had reported on their work at more than one ASEE conference, the entire group got to know much more about details during our engaging online discussions.

Our experiences in the Circuits VCP were far from perfect. It was difficult to maintain the momentum of our interactions because many of the participants had their teaching assignments changed or were given new administrative responsibilities. There are many pressures that push the focus of good teachers back toward local issues. The most positive continued impact of this project has been in the growth of our personal networks, which I have definitely made good use of in my research.

Partnership #2: I have had the great good fortune to work with many remarkable people from the ECE departments at Howard and Morgan State, starting with the Mobile Studio Project and continuing with the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center. Because we found that Mobile Studio Pedagogy worked so well at these two great schools, we decided to introduce our ideas to the other HBCUs with engineering programs. This began with an Intel sponsored workshop in November 2009 in which most of the HBCU ECE departments participated. The growth of this community was nurtured at ECEDHA meetings starting in 2010, culminating in the creation of the HBCU Experiment Centric Pedagogy project, which received funding from NSF starting fall 2013. With excellent leadership from Howard ECE (Mohamed Chouikha and Charles Kim) and Morgan State ECE (Craig Scott and Yacob Astatke), the goal of this project is to create a sustainable Network of engineering faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to focus on the development, implementation, and expansion of an experiment-centric instructional pedagogy, based on the Mobile Studio. The project is implementing this pedagogy in 39 different courses across the 13 HBCUs participating in the network and studying the effect of the implementation on motivation and retention.

Morgan State, Tuskegee, Prairie View, Tennessee State Participants at December 2013 Workshop.

Student at Howard


HBCU ECP Partners:
Alabama A&M, Florida A&M, Hampton, Howard, Jackson State,
Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T,
Prairie View A&M, Southern, Tennessee State, Tuskegee

The initial focus of the project is on introductory circuits courses, with essentially everyone contributing and collecting common assessment data. The strong commitment to the project goals is also now expanding to address electronics (for majors and non-majors) and first year courses. With the able and continued assistance of Bob Bowman (RIT EE) and additional funding from Analog Devices, several partner schools are piloting Bob’s EE Practicum which provides a hands-on path for first year engineering students to explore the world of electronics using Digilent’s Analog Discovery.  Participants were introduced to the EE Practicum at the program’s second workshop held last summer. Like the Circuits VCP, the group also meets online every other week

Key to building this collaboration has been the vision and sustained efforts of the leadership group with support from the Smart Lighting ERC, NSF, ECEDHA, Analog Devices, Digilent, Intel and other organizations. This is the first major effort that brings together the great people involved in electronics intensive instruction at HBCUs and we hope it will lead to additional collaborations in research and education. Recently, ECEDHA members in the Mid-Atlantic Region have expressed a strong interest in joining this effort so some kind of affiliate membership is being worked on to broaden the sharing of experiences and content.

Both of these partnerships show what can be done if we invest the time and have the kind of networking and logistics infrastructure we enjoy through ECEDHA and ASEE.  The ECE community needs to build on what we have learned in these and similar efforts and find effective ways to create a community of practice for first year ECE experiences and get away from our traditional efforts based on local optimization.

Blended Learning for Circuits and Electronics

The following was originally published in the May 2014 issue of ECE Source 

As I near the end of my 40th year as a professor of electrical and computer engineering, I remain excited about teaching electronics to engineering students. It would be natural to expect at least a little burnout at this advanced point in my career but I find I am having more fun than ever because we now have some amazing new tools available and, through a fortuitous series of recent experiences, I am meeting more and more remarkable teachers from ECE departments throughout the US, Canada and the world who want to fundamentally change the way our students learn about and with electronics.

My experience teaching circuits and electronics appears not to be typical. A large fraction of ECE students learn these critical subjects from faculty who treat the assignment as a chore maybe because their only direct interest and background comes from their undergraduate years. When I interviewed faculty at an outstanding research university recently (call it UXY), I was told that most of the faculty in basic circuits were from the communications group. This coincides with my own experience as an undergrad in the 1960s when I had a terrible experience in my Intro to Circuits course at Wisconsin. Full disclosure – I was assigned to the 7:45AM section three days a week for this theory only course, so I lacked a strong incentive to attend all class meetings. I did not have my Circuits Lab until a later semester. The students at UXY are better off in that they usually take their lab in the same term, although the schedules are not coordinated. When I took Linear Systems from the same instructor a couple years later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was a really good teacher and thoroughly enjoyed the course. Unfortunately, giving students a positive experience in circuits is critical to building interest in ECE. In another recent interview, a colleague at a West Coast school whose experience teaching circuits is similar to mine, sees basic circuits as the breaking point where students either start loving EE or running away from it.

While it is generally accepted that labs are critical to providing the best possible learning environment for circuits and electronics students, little has changed in my four decades except that the instruments at most colleges are better and are interfaced with computers for control and data acquisition. They may be a little prettier than they used to be, but lab facilities are still expensive, limited access, often windowless with utilitarian desks and nearly all have the same set of standard instruments. Except for at a few schools that built expensive studio classrooms where all forms of content delivery (lecture, computer lab, experimental lab, problem sessions, recitations …) are possible in any length or combination in any class period, hands-on, hardware-based learning activities are only possible in these standard labs.

Easily the best thing about being an ECE professor is that we get to help equip energetic, bright young people with the skills and knowledge to change the world. Sometimes, when we are lucky, these changes directly impact what we can do in the classroom. Examples of the educational tools generated by the creativity of our graduates in circuits and electronics include National Instruments’ myDAQ, Digilent’s Analog Discovery, Syscomp’s CircuitGear, with others joining their ranks almost daily. For links to most products in this market, see What clearly distinguishes these products from traditional bench-instruments is their very low cost (somewhere near the price of a technical textbook) and their multiple functionality (scope, function generator, power supply, spectrum analyzer, logic analyzer …) that provides most of what is needed for analog and digital courses. They are truly the results of the relentless quest of our graduates for ever more capable and cheaper products.

It would be easier to talk about this on-going revolution in engineering education if there was a commonly accepted name for these new tools. At the recent ECEDHA meeting in Napa, Sam Fuller of Analog Devices called them Personal Instrumentation Devices. Others I have talked to have called them Hand Held Instruments. At RPI, where one of the earliest such devices – The Mobile Studio – originated, we choose to call them Mobile Learning Platforms. If you want to find information online, maybe the best terms to use for your search are USB Scopes, even though the functionality goes way beyond just simple voltage measurement and PCs are being replaced by tablets and phones.

None of the names mentioned is really fully descriptive or understandable and the overall market is changing so fast that the focus on the hardware probably limits discourse. Fortunately, as educators, we are better off keeping our sights on the pedagogy the new tools make possible. In the center that combines Mobile Studio (RPI, Howard, Rose-Hulman, Morgan State) with TESSAL (Georgia Tech) and Lab-In-A-Box (Virginia Tech) projects, we use Mobile Hands-On STEM or MOHS Pedagogy in honor of the whimsical units used previously for conductance. I will mention at least one other term below, but, in the remainder of this piece, I will use MOHS Pedagogy to mean the blending of inexpensive, hands-on, experiment-focused instruction with other traditional (e.g. lectures, paper-and-pencil problem solving, recitations) and, especially, newer (e.g. flipped classroom, problem-based learning, active learning) modalities.

One of the secrets for staying young, at least in spirit, is to embrace opportunities that go well outside one’s comfort zone. My most recent chance to do something with the potential to be really embarrassing was when my team (with Fred Berry of MSOE and Peter Lea of Bowdoin) was chosen for an NSF pilot program to see if I-Corps activities and training could work for educational research as well as it does for traditional technical research. This effort, with support also from Intel, took nine three-member teams through a very intense schedule of multi-day workshops and weekly online classes and meetings, both beginning and ending in DC. Probably the most demanding and rewarding part of the process was the development of hypotheses organized into a business model canvas and then getting out of the building to interview at least 100 potential customers for our ideas. The interests of the groups ranged from transition programs for veterans interested in engineering careers to teaching programming fundamentals to concept inventories. All of us were convinced we had great ideas, but none had ever worked so hard to define things from the customer point-of-view.

What did we learn from this experience? Some of the real nuggets we received were not totally new, but our overall approach went through quite a significant change. We learned that the teaching of circuits and electronics labs is largely driven by the nature of the available facilities. Most schools have moderately sized labs serving 10-25 students, requiring multiple sections scheduled throughout the week, often into the evening. Most labs are written so that nearly all students can finish them in the allotted time, although many also have some open shop time for students to catch up, if necessary. Most students do what they can during their class time and then make the most of the experience in their reports. A faculty member from a large East Coast community college extended her work with her students as long as scheduling permitted and then continued to work with some of them using the lab set up she maintains in her office. We talked to quite a few such dedicated and passionate faculty who do whatever is necessary to make sure their students learn the material. They are frustrated because they cannot take care of everyone. We also came to appreciate that we were taking a similar facilities focus in our work by starting from the hardware and not pedagogy. We have these cool new tools and were thinking of how they change what we can do, rather than starting from what we need or want to accomplish and then seeing what the news tools can make possible.

We also learned (or confirmed in this case) that the facilities used for circuits and electronics labs were unexciting. Another topic discussed at length at the Napa ECEDHA meeting was how to recruit and retain a more diverse and larger ECE student body. Everyone in the room loves being an electrical or computer engineer and struggles to understand why so few young people want to join us. If we really think being in the ECE community is so great, why aren’t we building hands-on, active learning environments and highlighting them as showplaces to excite our future brothers and sisters? This idea partly came from some interviews with admissions personnel who immediately appreciated the potential to build on the nascent ECE interests of students who attend our pre-college summer programs by using MOHS tools to enable them to experience real ECE. Summer programs, like a lot of K-12 outreach, tend to emphasize mechanical and structural engineering (even those with a strong robotics flavor) over ECE and CS, which tend to make the enrollment imbalance in engineering even worse. One admissions officer even suggested buying a mobile device and a parts kit for each future ECE student to encourage them to tinker and provide them with a set of tools to use in their future courses. The return on a couple hundred dollar investment should be quite good.

During the present year, both before and after I-Corps, I have also gotten to work with an amazing group of schools – the HBCUs with ECE programs – on a new project using Experimental Centric Pedagogy (the alternative to MOHS I mentioned above) to address their recruitment and retention issues by providing a richer learning experience for their students. With leadership from the two schools already using MOHS(Howard and Morgan State), thirteen institutions are now building a model program using mobile instruments that should benefit the entire ECE community.  The lessons learned from our I-Corps experience have definitely provided a valuable contribution to this effort.

Another I-Corps lesson is a corollary to the cool learning approach that attracts new students. It is better if our students get to solve problems like real engineers if they are to develop the skills and confidence to become electrical and/or computer engineers. Real engineers do not sit around just solving academic problems, like I did as a sophomore. They do simulations and experiments with the goal of creating a workable systems model that can be used to produce the products their customers need. In recent years, with the availability of laptops, we have been able to add simulation activities to our circuits and electronics courses. Now with USB-based mobile instruments, our students are able to also do as much experimentation as necessary in their courses, no matter where and when they meet. It is no longer necessary to wait for a turn in a lab. They can also be given experimental homework. In fact, their entire lab experience (following the Lab-In-A-Box model) can be done at home. We can all give our student a learning experience that completely blends all the approaches taken by working engineers in ways that were never before possible.

I offer an example of what we can now do from the Electronic Instrumentation course I offer for large numbers of engineering students outside of ECE at RPI.  I asked my students to design a hardware switch debouncer using a 555 timer chip. I let them use any design they find online. To test out their design, I had them first simulate it with PSpice using an idealized switch signal with some bouncing. None of the designs they can find online will work with this sequence unless they change some components. Then I created the same sequence as a csv file and used this file with the Custom feature of the Analog Discovery Arbitrary Waveform Generator, so that the identical input could be used to test their hardware implementation. The students were able to test their design and see essentially identical responses from both simulation and experiment. I did this because I wanted the students to know they could simulate exactly what they are seeing experimentally, which validates the simulation. Then they can use any information easily obtained from the simulation to characterize their experiment. For example, I ask them to find two designs that use different average power. There is no direct way to measure power with standard instruments, but with PSpice it is trivial. This project involved roughly equal parts traditional hand calculations, simulation and experimentation and produced a working system.

I would like to end with a challenge – should we go as far as possible to eliminate traditional labs in ECE but rather incorporate experimentation as part of all standard undergrad courses? I would argue that traditional labs should indeed go and the use of lab facilities change focus to providing high performance or specialized measurement capabilities as a complement to the MOHS approach. We should change from labs being an add-on experience to becoming an integral part of a fully blended learning experience for our students. All the types of new pedagogy mentioned above (especially flipped classrooms) can then be incorporated based on the interests and capabilities of the students and faculty and not on what one can find in the lab.