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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

Plug-and-Play Labs

Teaching electronics used to pose a costly challenge. Technology has changed that.


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 many tools have been automated to handle lower-level functions. Indeed, today’s jobs often cluster at the margins of expertise — either at the very low or very 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 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 basics must be taught in the context of 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.

But hands-on learning defies a one-size-fits-all approach. Electronics, in particular semiconductor engineering, poses particular challenges. There are no moving parts, and the components are almost too small to see. In 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 contextual specifications to make it function reliably.

Until recently, hands-on learning in electronics also meant steep instrumentation costs, which can run upwards of $100,000 to equip a lab with many identical workstations. Operating with few workstations resulted in limited access, a scheduling nightmare, and a constrained environment that stifled curiosity.

At Arizona State University Polytechnic, our approach to semiconductor engineering education is evolving rapidly and causing us to introduce new tools for teaching. The framework has been developed through collaboration with a strong network of local industry partners. We have found that simpler solutions are now possible as computer technology reaches into the realm of instrumentation. The pathways to that solution involve more hands-on experiences, self-paced labs, and the application of just-in-time principles to learning.

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. The constraint has been shifted from the institution to the student.

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 into analyzing the outcomes.

Use of the kits is particularly attractive to the large number of students who live some distance from campus and often also have full-time jobs. Students set their own pace to reach their solutions. In many cases, they have big gaps in their educational experience, which shows up quickly in the application of concepts in practical work. Invariably, they 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. For those who need help, we can offer just-in-time tutorials. I’ve found that talking with students about what can go wrong is as important as demonstrating how a system should work.

Along the way, our students are learning the great thing about the practical analog world — there are pitfalls for the careless or poorly prepared, but there is also great satisfaction when good solutions are demonstrated. They’re getting equipped for a workplace where they will have to tackle problems with no textbook solutions — and no red flags when they’ve made a mistake.

 

John Robertson is a professor in the Department of Engineering, 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.

 


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