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Hands-On Learning Gets Real

University engineering programs aim to offer students, hands-on learning. Recent innovations are making that easier and cheaper.

By John Robertson


Engineering graduates are entering a job market that has changed significantly in the past decade.

Today's grads face consolidation, specialization and intense pressure from the global marketplace. Job skill requirements are steadily rising because so many tools have been automated to handle lower-level functions. Indeed, today's jobs often operate at the margins- either at the very low end and or at the high end- while those in the traditional middle ground are becoming scarcer.

As educators, our task is to help students transition to this higher ground-in the case of engineers by making sure that they are equipped with good, practical multidisciplinary skills. To that end, we need to evolve beyond the traditional textbook-oriented engineering curriculum to something more representative of today's technology. The basics needn't change, but if they are to be used effectively, they must be taught in the context of their current applications.

The pathways to that solution involve more hands-on experience, self-paced labs and the application of just-in-time principles to learning.

At Arizona State University, our approach to semiconductor engineering education is evolving rapidly and causing us to introduce new methods of teaching. For the past six years, for example, we've been building our Polytechnic school programs in collaboration with a strong network of local industry partners.

Hands-on learning has some special challenges in electronics. Nothing moves and the components are almost too small to see, so we can't metaphorically "kick the tires." Nowhere is this more applicable than for the sections where a digital system interfaces with the analog world. Students need to learn that the circuit diagram rarely tells the complete story, and they have to provide the additional specifications to make it function reliably.

To date, the biggest hurdle to hands-on learning has been instrumentation costs, which can run upward of $100,000 to equip a lab. Expensive instruments create a culture where lab time is limited and a few standard experiments are carried out with many similar test-stations.

In many cases, much simpler solutions are possible as computer technology is reaching into the realm of instrumentation. We are implementing a process where student learning needs determine the pace of the experimental work and the instrumentation that is used.

For our introductory microelectronics course, we use plug-and-play kits from companies such as Analog Devices Inc. Students experience good precision signal processing at about $150 per kit which includes power supplies, function generators and oscilloscopes. The kit becomes the lab. The portable analog design kits allow students to do the lab work on their own hours, whether in a campus lab or at home.

This is particularly attractive to the large number of students who live some distance from campus and often also have full-time jobs. In many cases, there are big chunks missing from their educational experience. It shows up quickly in the application of concepts in practical work and we can offer just-in-time tutorials to fill the gaps.

These experimental kits for students function like just another computer peripheral connected to the USB port. Students need only learn the simple interface once and can then use it for a wide range of applications. Since it's easy to set up an experiment, students can put more thought into what to measure and how it should be done.

The best thing about hands-on learning with personal lab kits is that students set their own pace to reach their solutions. On the way, they invariably meet the usual problems of instrument-experiment interaction. When they have to identify their own problem and then pose a solution, it means much more than if they simply follow a carefully sanitized procedure.

In my classes, I've found that talking with students about what can go wrong is as important as teaching how a system should work. In the workplace they have to tackle problems with no textbook solutions-and no red flags when they've made a mistake.

That's the great thing about the practical analog world-there are pitfalls for the careless or poorly prepared but great satisfaction when good solutions are demonstrated.

John Robertson is a professor in the Department of Engineering Technology, College of Technology and Innovation, at Arizona State University, and a former Motorola executive responsible for new product design. He can be reached at jrobertson@asu.edu.