Tag Archives: Electrical Engineering

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 (mobilestudioproject.com). 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.


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.