I had a meeting today with the EE undergrad director and my co-instructor, to see if we could find a common ground that would allow the course to go forward. It looks like we may, though it involves more politics than I would like.
The idea is to promote a redesign of the existing circuits course, and to offer the applied circuits course this year as a prototype of the new course. My co-instructor is going to go over the syllabus for the existing course carefully, to see where our course would need to be tweaked to match the content of the existing course (or places where the existing course needs to be tailored to better fit student needs). We would then bring the proposal to the EE faculty, with the help of the EE undergrad director. The EE exit interviews indicates that even their own majors have some dissatisfaction with the disconnect between the labs and lectures currently, so our more tightly integrated course could be sold to the faculty.
Of course, this process would take at least a year, and I’m not willing to wait, as EE has talked about improving their circuits course for years, without much evidence of any actual improvement. So what I proposed is that the two of us who have been designing the course offer it this year as a prototype run (paid for by my department, not EE), so that we can offer a tested course, rather than just the paper design for a course. I think we’ve got a good chance of getting approval for this, as there is no financial commitment from EE,, no long term approval of a “competing” course, and they can put off making a decision for a while. Prototyping is a familiar concept for engineers, so spinning it that way, rather than as a “replacement” or “alternative” is likely to be an easier sell.
I was initially worried about trying to do a full-on replacement for the circuits course, because what is needed in a course that prepares students for future EE courses and what is needed in a terminal electronics courses is not the same. It turns out, though, that I was misinformed about what the current course actually covers, and that it is much closer in content to what I wanted to teach than I thought. The problems with the course were not with the content so much as with the pedagogy. (I had been told that there were transform methods in the circuits course, but there are not. I had been lead to believe that there were matrix formulations of the circuits equations, but those are not usually done until a later course.)
There are probably some things that we were planning to cut from our version of the circuits class that we’ll have to restore, and we’ll do a careful analysis of them. For example, we were going to do very little with inductors, since we don’t need them for most of the low-frequency stuff we do with biosignals, and we were probably going to omit transformers (using optoisolators when we needed to talk about isolation). If we have to do a full circuits class that allows people to go on to RF circuits, we’ll have to do at least a little with inductors.
The main pedagogical difference that we wanted to make was to have the lecture be tightly coupled to the lab, with everything taught in lecture not because “you’ll thank me some day” but because the students needed to know the material right now to do this week’s labs. That tight coupling is going to be the hardest thing to maintain if they just rotate random faculty into the course who think of the labs as an afterthought that the TAs deal with. Of course, I’ve been choosing lab projects that I think are inspiring to bioengineers, but many of them would work perfectly well with computer engineers and electrical engineers.
I think it would be really cool if someone on the EE faculty put as much effort as I have into designing labs for the circuits class, but with a different slant. Having different variants of the course in different quarters, with the same basic content but synchronized to a different set of labs would be neat. I’m not expecting anyone on the the very heavily research-oriented EE department here to get excited by the pedagogic challenge, though.