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EXPERIENCE ENGINEERING: How Hands-on Courses Prepare ECE Students for Better Jobs and Internships
By: Truong Nguyen, University of California, San Diego
The Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department at the University of California San Diego has a strong reputation for theory and a rich diversity of research areas to explore. Even before I became chair of the department two years ago, it was abundantly clear that our 1,800 students were at a disadvantage applying for internships with industry, even after junior year. They found it hard to get picked, not because they were not smart and well-educated, but because they did not offer employers the right skill mix.
The reason? The curriculum has been so top-heavy with theory and preparation for research that ECE majors did not experience hands-on learning until senior year, with a capstone group project course required for graduation. For most students, it’s the first time they feel that they are practicing engineers, and their final project becomes an important artifact – something to show at job interviews as evidence of what they’ve learned. The capstone project remains an important component of the curriculum, but it also raised questions about what was missing from earlier courses students take throughout their college careers.
To put it bluntly, ECE students have been at a loss to compete for industry internships starting freshman year, or even sophomore year. The vast majority of ECE majors didn’t even attempt to interview for internships until junior year. Meanwhile, first-year students majoring in mechanical engineering are already getting experience in internships because they have the basic real-world skill set, and computer science majors are well-equipped because they have the ability to work on apps or to teach themselves particular programming languages that are in demand [1, 2].
ECE, on the other hand, is such a broad field that incoming freshmen generally are unaware of how many different depth topics come under this one major. They rarely understand what signal processing, or circuits, or even robotics truly involve. So in addition to giving freshmen the opportunity to do hands-on projects from the very beginning, we also wanted to create a freshman course that introduces students to various important areas in ECE. Furthermore, hands-on design projects in the first year improve engineering student retention .
The cornerstone of UC San Diego’s hands-on curriculum in ECE is the freshman course, ECE 5, Experience ECE: Making, Breaking and Hacking Stuff. In the course of one quarter, students work on four projects in increasingly difficult areas of study.
In the first week of the course, they learn to use an Arduino-based microcontroller to control an LED light. After LEDs, the students extend their practical knowledge by connecting resistors, capacitors, and speakers to a breadboard. An all-in-one instrument allows the students to power the system and understand how signals flow through their circuit. The students also create high- and low-pass filters to visualize frequencies above and below a set frequency. Students then dive into the digital domain, learning how audio signals are converted to 1s and 0s. They get early exposure to Matlab as they learn how signals can be quickly manipulated to achieve a desired result – in this case, interesting sounds. For the final project, students build a line-following robot using the same micro-controller they used in the first week. The students use their knowledge of Arduino to program the robot to sense and follow a black line and drive a vehicle as it responds autonomously to any disturbance or change in direction.
Beyond writing the code for the robot, students are encouraged to leverage what they learned in earlier projects to add new technologies like wireless radio communications, ultrasonic wall-detecting sensors, or even GPS technology. They also get to experiment with 3D modeling and printing when they print and install a front bumper, ambient light shield, or other physical accessory on their robot.
It is critical to remember that most freshmen have never picked up a soldering iron, or used any of the equipment that is ubiquitous in an ECE lab. So in addition to introducing topical areas, in ECE 5 special tutorials introduce students to the equipment and how to use it. They learn how to use an oscilloscope and function generator, and how to do frequency analysis, even to solder – which previously they never needed to know until they took a course where it was required – and they had never been taught! That’s unfair. We also introduce them to Matlab, which they need to know. They also learn how to use breadboarding. In other words, they learn many of the basic skills that can make them ‘complete’ engineers.
Those are the same skills that recruiters for industry look for when hiring summer interns, and those same recruiters look for evidence that the student has hands-on experience applying those skills to a particular project, and that’s what ECE 5 does. This is critical because like interest on a bank account, internships tend to compound: a successful internship as a freshman leads to an even better internships after sophomore year, and by the time they look for a junior-year position, our students can compete at the very highest level for internships (and potentially future full-time jobs) at blue-chip technology companies like Qualcomm, Google, or Apple.
Doing hands-on projects is critical at an early stage because many students are understandably fearful about doing projects. It’s a daunting task, especially if you don’t have any hands-on experience in the lab. We make sure our students know that doing a project has a long-term payoff. If they want to do a startup company – and many of them come to us saying that they do – the original idea is great. But if they don’t know how to create a prototype to show interested investors, they won’t get very far. A lot of incoming students opt instead for computer science because they can learn the skills they need, come up with an idea for a company, and create an app on their own. For ECE, it’s much more complicated to create a prototype that may involve electrical, mechanical, even optical components, as well as hardware and software.
With ECE 5, we aim to teach freshmen how to go about doing a project and working in teams, but we also recognized that having a first-year experience might go to waste if the next time students experience hands-on learning was in senior year with their capstone team project. For this reason, we developed the Experience Engineering curriculum, with follow-up, hands-on courses. In ECE 16, Rapid Hardware and Software Design, students tackle the concept of hardware and software for interfacing with the world, and in particular, the tradeoffs between them. If you’re studying computer science, you can start from the assumption that you can have access to unlimited resources – in memory, storage or speed – whereas in developing a device in ECE, it always comes with tradeoffs. How much can you accomplish with limited resources? ECE 16 students apply C to program microcontrollers, and they are introduced to the Python programming language to analyze data (a pre-requisite for many internship opportunities). The course also introduces students to real-world sensing through the structured design and development of a controller based on electromyogram signals. Teams complete four design-oriented lab projects, culminating in a final design competition focused on controllers for a video game. Key concepts developed through the quarter include sampling, signal processing, communication, and real-time control.
While ECE 16 was designed as a follow-up to the freshman ECE 5 course, the two courses together culminate in a third-year course, Fast Prototyping (ECE 115). The goal is to take everything they learned in the two prior courses and use the experience to design and build an entire electromechanical system. Students learn to identify specifications for a problem, use block diagrams to design the system, and employ rapid prototyping (3D printing), laser cutting, and other design and manufacturing techniques to build a prototype. They implement common sensors, amplifiers, analog filtering stages and actuators on the prototype, while microcontroller interface boards (such as Arduinos and XBees) are used for system integration, input-output control, communication, and plotting data on a PC.
For their final project, ECE 115 students build functional pinball machines without using blueprints. Instead, students iterate on several designs of their own during the 10-week course, and they are urged to iterate each successive version as rapidly as possible. Professor Michael Yip developed and teaches the course, and he warns students that the faster they can get things done, the faster they can fix their mistakes. First taught in spring 2016, ECE 115 culminated in an open house in the Jacobs Hall lobby, where passers-by played pinball on the students’ machines.
Based on the first open house, it was clear that students accomplished something that would have been difficult to achieve just a year earlier.
While students who take ECE 5, 16 or 115 must wait until the designated quarter when each is offered, we also wanted to give students the option to work on other hands-on projects for credit in between taking the standard courses. This fall, I will begin teaching ECE 196, the Engineering Hands-On Group Project course that we’ve dubbed the Project in a Box (PIB) course. The name is self-explanatory: a team of two students receives a box of components and course materials, and the course can be taken any quarter. The boxes have the key components that students need to build one of five projects, and each project can be taken at one of three levels of difficulty – for beginner, intermediate, or advanced students. (Although designed as an upper-division course, ECE 196 can also be taken by lower-division students by permission of the instructor.)
Each PIB course project exposes students to particular real-world technical skills, and the projects were designed by faculty with help from a group of dedicated tutors. After completing the project, the students are also required to design their own project with the help of the faculty and tutor. Example of PIBs: They build solar trackers to power light-emitting diodes (LED). The tracker is an electromechanical device to shift the direction in which a photovoltaic panel is facing (to optimize the amount of sunshine hitting it, and thus produce more power to run the LEDs). Students making a solar tracker gain experience with Arduino programming, design optimization, computer-aided design, mechanical control, and maximum power-point tracking. Another hands-on sequence engages students in laser-cutting, soldering and 3D printing parts for a robotic arm. They also get experience reading schematics, constructing a breadboard (on which integrated circuits are designed), and doing Fourier analysis in the course of creating a pedal to render guitar audio effects. Other ECE 196 projects involve building a binary clock and an arcade emulator.
Following the introduction of ECE 196 this fall, the Experience Engineering curriculum will expand to include other hands-on courses in winter and spring 2017. We will launch a new sequence of two courses focused on the Internet of Things (IoT): the initial course will give students the opportunity to build an IoT device and a network of such devices, while the second course will focus on networking IoT devices into an IoT system with special attention to security solutions for IoT systems.
Throughout the hands-on curriculum, students also learn soft skills like communication, planning and working in teams to complete challenges. These are important skills required by many employers [4, 5]. Sitting with a group of people and talking about theory is one thing, but sitting together and building something is another experience entirely. Students get something different out of it – whether it’s motivation, or confidence – that really convinces them that they can build something greater together than what they can build on their own.
Creating an entire series of hands-on courses would be difficult if our department did not have the wherewithal to provide the facilities where students can build their projects and prototypes. Our department set aside funds to outfit an ECE Makerspace in the main engineering building on the UC San Diego campus, and all of our upper-division hands-on courses take place primarily in the Makerspace. But a dedicated facility is not large enough to accommodate the new courses serving freshman and sophomore students. Fortunately, ECE is part of the broader Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, and students can use a much larger maker space located in the Structural and Mechanical Engineering (SME) building – the newest engineering building on campus. The EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio serves not only engineering students, but also courses in visual arts. The 2,700-square-foot space opened in January 2016, and provides students with a re-configurable, open space that can be dynamically modified to suit the needs of any student or instructor. Students have access to 3D printers, laser cutters, PCB fabricators, organic bio-printers, thermoformers, computers, electronics, all kinds of tools and software. All ECE 5 and ECE 16 courses take place in the EnVision Maker Studio.
Having the maker spaces in ECE and the Jacobs School is critical to the success of the Experience Engineering curriculum in our department. However, the ability to create and supervise hands-on courses is not easy for faculty with years of experience teaching classroom courses. Without the expansion of our faculty, we would have been unable to hire faculty with both the experience and the creativity to develop a brand-new curriculum from scratch that puts a premium on hands-on experience, especially at the lower-division level. In the past few years, we’ve hired half a dozen junior faculty with strong experience with hands-on courses, and all were involved in designing the new curriculum. We constantly hear about the value of hands-on experience from partners in industry, and experiential learning gives our students the skills, experience and confidence necessary to get great engineering jobs when they graduate or go for an internship.
We believe that the Experience Engineering curriculum at UC San Diego is unique for an electrical and computer engineering department at major U.S. research universities. The cost of developing and teaching half a dozen new hands-on courses, outfitting and management of maker spaces and hiring faculty to design and teach experiential courses, is substantial for a single university. For this reason, we have made a commitment to offering the course materials, initially for the freshman course, on an open-source basis to universities worldwide. All ECE 5 materials (Powerpoint presentations, lab assignments, solutions, project designs, and lists of parts) are available for download online. They include five labs: Introduction to Arduino; Infrared Communications; Analog Signals and Filtering; Audio Signal and Image Processing; and Robotics. Additional tutorials include a soldering tutorial, a Makerbot tutorial, and Simulink kinematic and PID models. (To download course materials, visit http://ece5.ucsd.edu.)
To date, professors at two-dozen universities have downloaded the ECE 5 materials. Nearly half of those downloads went to universities around the world, in countries both near (Canada) and far (Turkey, South Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil, Vietnam and Japan, among others).
What was missing from the engineering curriculum in our department is still largely missing from most ECE departments. While experiential learning is more easily adopted in other disciplines, any department that aims to produce engineers to work in industry is well advised to prepare students as early as possible to compete for internships throughout their undergraduate careers. The first step is to give this opportunity to first-year students, but that’s not enough. By tailoring courses for sophomores and juniors as well, we ensure that the skills first learned as freshmen can be practiced and expanded upon through graduation. This has been our experience, although some of our new courses are still in formation. But the early results and feedback from students and industry partners alike point to a curriculum that introduces classes to engineering in the real world that is not possible in lecture halls alone.
 Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton University Press, 2012.
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 D.W. Knight, L. E. Carlson, J. F. Sullivan, “Improving engineering student retention through hands-on, team based, first-year design projects,” Proccedings of the International Conference on Research in Engineering Education, Honolulu, HI, 2007.
 Sally Dench, (1997) “Changing skill needs: what makes people employable?", Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 29 Issue 6, pp.190 - 193
 T. W. Hissey, “Education and Careers 2000. Enhanced skills for engineers,” Proceeding of the IEEE, Vol. 88, Issue 8, August 2000, pp. 1367-1370.
Truong Q. Nguyen [F'05] is currently a Professor and Chair of the ECE Dept., UC San Diego. His current research interests are 3D video processing and communications and their efficient implementation. He is the coauthor (with Prof. Gilbert Strang) of a popular textbook, Wavelets & Filter Banks, Wellesley-Cambridge Press, 1997, and the author of several matlab-based toolboxes on image compression, electrocardiogram compression and filter bank design. He has over 400 publications.
Prof. Nguyen received the IEEE Transaction in Signal Processing Paper Award (Image and Multidimensional Processing area) for the paper he co-wrote with Prof. P. P. Vaidyanathan on linear-phase perfect-reconstruction filter banks (1992). He received the NSF Career Award in 1995. He served as Associate Editor for the IEEE Transaction on Signal Processing 1994-96, for the Signal Processing Letters 2001-2003, for the IEEE Transaction on Circuits & Systems from 1996-97, 2001-2004, and for the IEEE Transaction on Image Processing from 2004-2005.