October 2014

Featured Article

Transforming the ECE First-year Experience

Laptops, Labs in Backpacks, Project Based Learning, and the Bridge to K-12

By Badri Roysam, Chair, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Houston

The First Time in College (FTIC) experience is very special for students, parents, and faculty members alike. This is especially true for Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) departments. Beyond the usual culture shock, the extra-curricular distractions, and the need to adjust to an altogether new environment, students face challenges that are peculiar to our discipline. The typical ECE curriculum starts off with a rigorous battery of mathematics and calculus courses, often taught in non-ECE departments, rather than a welcoming discussion of electronics and computers.

Understandably, it is quite difficult for a student who is fresh out of high school to adjust to this situation, especially at a time when they may not even have made up their minds about their degree plan. On the other side, ECE faculty members and department chairs are most interested in the students who do make it successfully through the math and science gauntlet. Increasingly, this mismatch of expectations is becoming a problem for ECE departments, as well as the country as a whole.

The issues facing ECE departments are a microcosm of the broader STEM environment. In his accompanying article “Creating Who We Will Be”, Douglas Verret, IEEE Fellow, and a recent retiree from Texas Instruments in Houston, writes “It is plain to me that the question of how to best prepare students for engineering is too narrowly construed.  The right question is how do we motivate capable students to choose a career in engineering or STEM.  To bolster this argument consider this.  Only sixteen percent of HS students are interested in pursuing STEM careers according to the Department of Education.  Women made up just eighteen percent of computer science college degrees in 2012.  In 1985 it was thirty-seven percent.  Even accounting for insufficient aptitude, the loss of potential is enormous, but so is the opportunity.” David Goldberg, emeritus professor of Engineering at the University of Illinois, and Mark Somerville, Associate Dean at Olin College, note in their book A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering, that “Less than five percent of U.S. undergraduates choose engineering as a degree, and more than 50 percent will leave the major before graduating – despite the lure of higher salaries and jobs for newly minted graduates. Women and minorities are woefully underrepresented at engineering schools across the country and the blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry lectures doesn’t inspire students who, as natural makers, would rather be building things.” The need to engage and retain the brightest young minds is of vital interest to ECE departments.

A significant part of the student losses occur during the very first year. For this and other reasons, most public and private U.S. universities now have curricular and co-curricular initiatives aimed at transforming the first-year student experience. The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina (http://www.sc.edu/fye/) holds annual conferences devoted to this topic.  Recently, university ranking outfits like U. S. News are beginning to look at the first-year experience, and noting schools that represent stellar examples (http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/first-year-experience-programs ). It will not be long before prospective students and parents start looking at these rankings, as they work through their college selection decisions. IEEE Chapters around the country are increasingly focusing on the K-12 pipeline, and ECE students and faculty can be a vital part of the solution. For example, the IEEE Electron Devices Society (EDS) sponsors EDS-ETC (Engineers Demonstrating Science— an Engineer Teacher Connection). Under this initiative, undergraduate students and professors visit elementary schools and inspire teachers and kids alike to the wonders of ECE. Other professional societies are similarly engaged. Many large corporations are increasingly sponsoring and participating in STEM promotion activities. While these efforts may improve the motivation and/or preparation of K-12 students entering colleges, they represent only half the solution.

In this broader context, what is an ECE Department head to do? Is there, perhaps, a need for ECE departments to rethink the first-year experience? Should we restructure our educational offerings to better match the contemporary K-12 pipeline?  Increasingly, infusion of more hands-on experiences into the first-year experience is perceived to offer the most promise. Goldberg’s studies inspired him to co-develop the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education (iFoundry) with former ECE Chair, and now Dean of Engineering Andreas Cangellaris.  They are not alone, and leading ECE departments around the country are developing or considering facilities for students to make and build things, modeled after the broader Maker Movement that is starting to get the attention of educators (Innovating Pedagogy 2013 ). They are re-thinking the formative first-year student experience, for diverse reasons, including student success, retention, and adapting to the changing K-12 student body. A common theme across these efforts is a greater emphasis on hands-on experimentation and linking computation with electronics. The importance of going beyond the lecture-based teaching model, and infusing real-world experiences into the first-year curriculum has also been noted by the National Academy of Engineering in its report Infusing Real World Experiences into Engineering Education. The common theme across the most successful programs is the infusion of a hands-on component into the first-year experience, with a level of realism that is appropriate for beginning students.

Much of this newfound emphasis on making comes from the observation that the culture of tinkering and building things, the traditional engineering substrate, is slowly vanishing among our K-12 youth, and this should be a concern for ECE departments. When I was in high school (circa 1979), many of my friends were fellow tinkerers and builders. Electronic devices were mysterious, rare, and uncannily powerful. Careers in electronics were sought after, and lucrative. Overall, the lure of this subject was irresistible. The need to learn physics and mathematics to understand these mysterious devices was obvious, so curiosity and motivation to study these subjects came for free.

We live in altogether different times now. Computers and electronic systems pervade our lives. Our kinds walk around with smartphones with more electronics, sensors, and computing than I could have imagined as a student. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, our discipline is increasingly becoming “invisible” to many K-12 students who are increasingly choosing mechanical and biomedical engineering over ECE. Our discipline hides in plain sight. Electronic devices work in abstract ways, do not move, need a microscope to even see, and are impossible to break open to peek into. Specialized tools, and even software programming methods are needed to build systems. Importantly, fellow K-12 electronics hobbyists are increasingly rare, and the supportive peer community is dwindling.

Interestingly, there is fresh hope. Key to changing the landscape is the idea of a “lab in a backpack”, or a “lab in a box”. This phrase originated in the context of medical care delivery (rice360.rice.edu/labinabackpack ), but is increasingly applicable for the backpacks of ECE students. In her Forbes article “What's The Next Big Thing For Engineering Students? A Lab That Fits In A Backpack,” Denise Restauri focuses on female and less affluent students, and wrote; “… first year students arrive at college with large variations in their amount of hands on experience. Students from more affluent backgrounds often have significant exposure to programming and electronics during high school while their less affluent counterparts have little to none. This also applies to female engineering students who are often not exposed to the same engineering experiences in high schools, especially hands-on lab experiences. If the gaps in hands-on experience are not closed during the first year, they will widen and students may fall further and further behind. … It’s therefore critical to give our first year students better ways to gain significant hands-on lab and open-ended design experiences. The traditional engineering lab model runs up against cost and logistical barriers. There is a saying in engineering education: “Textbooks are cheap but lab equipment is expensive. Engineering laboratories are expensive to run and maintain.”

Interestingly, labs in backpacks address the pedagogic imperatives, as well as the economic concerns. Laptops and their newer incarnations are increasingly affordable to the point that most students own them. Their processors are more powerful than ever, and importantly, their batteries last much longer. The USB ports of these laptops can not only connect with external peripherals, but also power them. The simplest pedagogically valuable tool that can take advantage of these features is a System on chip (SOC) board, like the open source $25 Arduino board (www.arduino.cc). Such boards can be used as part of their first-year experience, and are capable of exciting students while providing for good pedagogy. These boards are built from low-cost yet highly capable system on chip (SoC) devices that integrate a surprising amount of capabilities that are needed in mobile devices, including a powerful embedded processor, analog and digital input/output ports, signal processors, MEMS sensors, operational amplifiers, etc., and yet fit into a shirt pocket with ease. They can be used to control small robots, and can be expanded using daughter cards to expand functionality. Importantly, their open source philosophy ensures there are no trade secrets lurking under the hood. It’s like a fully worked out example.

Companies like Analog Devices (www.digilentinc.com/analogdiscovery/ ) and National Instruments (www.ni.com/mydaq/ ) sell low-cost ($50 – 200) signal interface systems that connect with laptops via USB ports, and simulate previously expensive test and measurement systems like signal generators, oscilloscopes, and spectrum analyzers on the laptop screen. Software tools like NI’s LabView (http://www.ni.com/labview/) are designed to work seamlessly with other pedagogically relevant first-year tools like MATLAB (Mathworks, Inc.), widely used for teaching introductory engineering computing.  The Analog Discovery board is supported by the MATLAB data acquisition toolbox. Overall, these converging developments mean that students can easily afford to own, and effortlessly carry a surprisingly complete, albeit basic, electronics and computing laboratory in their backpacks. Students can experiment with them anywhere, in dorm rooms, and even outdoors. Importantly, it is now practical for large freshmen classes to require students to own them without having to maintain large and expensive freshman laboratories. The indigent student can be helped with department provided loaners, rentals, and/or equipment scholarships. Once equipped, students can not only do their academic assignments efficiently using their own equipment, but also use them to pursue electronics as a hobby or to invent new things. Departmental laboratory resources can focus on more advanced equipment that our juniors and seniors can use.

In their accompanying article, Victoria Goodrich and Yih-Fang Huang at Notre Dame describe their experience with bringing experiential learning methods to first year engineering students. They noted improved retention rates, better student engagement, and better attendance compared to the traditional lecture-based format. On the other hand, they note the need for additional changes to accommodate the needs of project-based learning (www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning ). For example, they found it advantageous to have classes meet once a week for extended durations, rather than twice a week for shorter durations. They also feel that these improvements require more teaching manpower, and more space. These issues are also noted by the NAE that noted three primary impediments: (i) lack of financial support; (ii) faculty workload concerns; and (iii) the difficulty of securing industry partners.  Deans at larger institutions were also concerned about the difficulty of scaling activities to larger classes. In the accompanying article Ken Connor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute provides a lucid exposition on the power of partnerships, especially academic peer-to-peer partnerships, and the role of federal agencies. He also describes the broad palette of solutions to these impediments including online and flipped classrooms.

Figure 1

In my own department, we are transforming the first year experience using NI myDAQ’s, LabView, MATLAB, CubeSats, and relationships with some of our research labs. We send our students to inspire local area school children with Aldebaran humanoid robots (Figure 1). In our freshman project-based “Intro to ECE” class (ECE 1100) we bring electronic parts and breadboards right into the classroom (Figure 2), and we hire upper class EE students to provide guidance while freshmen work on simple electronics projects. Being an urban public university, we were concerned about the ability of our less wealthy students to afford laptops. Happily, we found that 95% of our students already owned laptops, and our alumni stepped in to help the rest with laptop scholarships (Figure 3). Happily also, the freshmen have embraced this initiative – the drop rate is now barely 5%, and student surveys indicate overwhelming enthusiasm. Although the effort is new and our performance results are preliminary, we are starting to see valuable down-stream benefits. Statistics on 70 students taking our rigorous third-semester Circuit Analysis course for the first time show that students who took the new ECE 1100 passed Circuit Analysis at a rate almost 12% higher than other students. On other fronts, we are beginning a maker-like laboratory initiative with industry engagement, and working to make our efforts more visible externally (http://www.ee.uh.edu/undergraduate/first-year-experience ). I feel that we have only just begun, and much more needs to be done.

                                  Figure 2                                                    Figure 3

In summary, the ongoing transformation of the ECE first-year experience is exciting and promising. Many questions remain. Will the morale-boosting experiences associated with labs in backpacks help balance the travails associated with the math and science requirements of ECE students? Will the educational benefits outweigh the costs? Will the improved first-year experiences result in broader benefits downstream? Can they be structured to motivate students to seek out the math and science courses rather than dread them? Will it bring back the fading art of tinkering and making and boost invention? Importantly, can these ongoing changes to the first-year student experience help ensure continued future enrollment and quality growth in ECE departments?


While the answers to these questions will surely emerge within a few years, one thing is for certain – there is a clear benefit to ECE departments working together and sharing best practices. To quote Ken Connor, “… 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.” As we work together, we can create a national model. Companies will then be able to produce low-cost kits. Authors of textbooks can then weave these kits into the next generation of books. Companies and foundations can embrace and support these methods. Our discipline as a whole can chart a new future.

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