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The Joys of Tinkering

Personal exploration is the key to getting more kids jazzed about electronics and the world around them. New cost effective, miniature instruments create the backpack lab and help female engineering students overcome the "cockpit problem."

By Robert J. Bowman, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology


My parents survived my curiosity regarding all things electrical. Our home was littered with the dismembered remains of my exploratory projects - toasters, radios, turntables, batteries. A career in electrical engineering seemed inevitable.

As an undergraduate electrical engineering student, I studied how a transistor worked at the atomic level. I could describe minority carrier injection but didn't know what a transistor looked like. At my first job I was embarrassed that I couldn't identify the leads on a transistor using an ohmmeter. That provided the inspiration to teach myself applied electronics. Ah, but what a glorious experience!

When thinking about how we can inspire future analog design engineers, I always come back to my early years of tinkering. Hands-on experience is the single best way to motivate engineering students to study core analytical subjects in math and science, the foundation for ultimately become working, designing engineers.

With tinkering and observation comes design instinct and applied knowledge that's hard to get any other way. I've been pleasantly surprised with what we've achieved at RIT in the ten years since introducing "tinkering labs" into the curriculum. The influence of this program as well as other college initiatives have improved retention of first year electrical engineering students between 2001 and 2010 from below 70% to over 83%. There's also been an unexpected bonus: Female students feel empowered when they get a chance to play on their own.

The typical two-year campus "engineering boot camp" of math and science doesn't exactly inspire new recruits to the field. "Where's the engineering?" moan the second-year students. When I joined RIT as department head in electrical engineering, I wanted to break the undergrad logjam. We started with "Freshman Practicum," a first year, 1-credit lab-based course. No previous electronic experience required and no exams. Students get acquainted with simple circuits, discover how something works, and gain the empirical knowledge that inspires the study of formal analysis.

We know that many of our best students grow up tinkering but many more arrive at college lacking practical know-how. But put a soldering iron in their hands and the magic begins. In freshman practicum, students solder small elements to a printed circuit board to build, say, an AM radio receiver or audio oscillator. We've found the female students to be more dexterous and get the soldering job done faster than their male counterparts. Suddenly the women feel like they belong to the "club." It's fun to see their confidence build. Once students get a taste of electrical engineering, they have a reason to study core subjects like circuits, calculus, and physics.

And then it's back to more tinkering. In "Sophomore Practicum" students play with infrared LEDs and IR photodiodes, examine a serial data interface, build an infrared optical communications data link, and connect two computers together with the IR optical data link. They learn how to transmit their favorite mp3 music over an IR light beam between computers. They interrupt the light beam to stop the music. Now that's something to text home about.

Two years ago we created a new design class to help students better prepare for their capstone senior design project - a staple of engineering colleges everywhere. At RIT, the senior project usually involves a team of six or seven students across engineering departments all solving one large multi-disciplinary project. However, far too many students arrived at their capstone project unprepared to design a solution for typical project needs. Partly because of accreditation requirements, many of the capstone projects had become too process-oriented. As a result, the projects were not always focused on engineering design. In addition, on larger teams some students were left out of the design process.

Those issues led to "Individual Design Experience," a fourth-year, 3-credit course focused on individual experiential learning which follows the engineering design cycle including specification, analysis and design, build, test, troubleshoot, and documentation. The student selects one of several technology platforms common to many projects in "Senior Design Projects," thus preparing the student with specific skill sets they can apply to that class. The individual design project definition is scoped for an 8-week design cycle. The demonstration and report are due at the end of the course. Every student personally goes through the engineering design cycle.

But one big obstacle remains at RIT and other engineering campuses. Each of those lab courses requires students to have ready access to a fully equipped electronic laboratory. I've often thought, boy if we could only provide a way to let them tinker more on their own. We actually tried placing small labs in dormitory common areas but found them impossible to maintain. Alas, there's no oscilloscope in each dorm room! However, I am now evaluating a small electronic module about the size of a deck of cards that could significantly impact the way we deliver practical lab-based content. The Analog Discovery module from Digilent Inc. and Analog Devices Inc. is intended to substitute for the typical $5,000 instrument cluster of oscilloscope, signal generator, and power supply in university labs and provide users with their own "electronic sandbox" to tinker and observe.

The Discovery Module could also enable the offering of online electronic courses with each student having their own lab. I'm currently developing RIT's first fully integrated electronics course to be offered completely online. This is part of a certificate program offered for electronic technicians, scientists, or practically anyone interested in learning about electronics. But it needs to have an online lab component.

Some of my colleagues are rightfully concerned about the teaching effectiveness of this new online delivery method. However, the reality is that most of the world's prospective engineering students are still waiting for the opportunity to gain access to engineering courses. It's sad that only the privileged few have a chance to attend top flight engineering schools. Why shouldn't all creative minds in the world benefit? It's going to happen. I choose to participate.

I am also hopeful that novel devices like the Discovery module will encourage more female students and help them overcome the "cockpit problem," wherein the girls often rely on the boys to operate the more complicated instruments. The opportunities for personal exploration are there. The module is quite small ( 1/2" x 3 1/2" x 2 1/2") and in its rubber-sheath covering looks like it can stand up to some abuse. It's also cheaper than a textbook. I'm still early in my evaluation. But assuming that the final version is optimized to act as a 10MHz two-channel oscilloscope, two-channel signal generator, and two-output power supply, the Discovery module could revolutionize personal electronic exploration for students. Together with a laptop, prototyping board, and electronic parts kit you have what I call a "backpack lab."

I tell my students that what you design has the potential to change the world. If you cast yourself as a world changer in college then your educational objectives become professionally rewarding and socially redeeming. A report published by the National Academy of Engineering in 2000 defined the 20 most significant engineering achievements of the 20th century. The domains of electrical engineering permeate 17 of 20 achievements. So what does report this really say? Electrical engineering lets you see the future before anyone else because you create it.

The most innovative ideas come from the mind of a single very bright person. We need to create more environments for single creative minds to blossom. Personal discovery can enable that. The Analog Discovery module can enable that. Experiential learning and personal exploration fuel the desire to push the boundaries of knowledge. Energetic young minds will create and discover things we've only dreamed about. I don't want to lose anyone in the world because they don't get a chance to participate. Everybody who wants in is in. Talk about changing the world.

Robert Bowman has spent many years in industry and academia, the last five years as Lab Director of The Analog Devices Integrated Microsystems Laboratory at Rochester Institute of Technology and before that head of RIT’s electrical engineering department. Previously, Bowman was director of analog and mixed-signal design for LSI Logic Inc.. He can be reached at rjbeee@rit.edu.