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2012 December 15

Small enrollment in circuits course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 06:23
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It looks like only 18 students have enrolled in the first offering of the circuits course, almost all of them seniors in bioengineering, who have been putting off taking the EE circuits course.  I was hoping for a better mix of levels (the course is intended for sophomores and juniors), but the class is big enough to be worth offering, and I hope it will be bigger in future.

I think that there were several things that limited enrollment:

  1. The short notice.  The class was not known to students when they were planning they schedule for the year.  Many students took the fall offering of EE 101, not knowing whether our department would ever offer the applied circuits course as an alternative.
  2. Lack of advertising.  I informed the declared bioengineering majors, and put a few signs up around Science Hill, but the class is not listed in the catalog and students outside the bioengineering majors probably don’t know of its existence or its relevance to them.  It doesn’t even appear in the Schedule of Courses: you have to know the secret number to register for the course!
  3. EE’s refusal to consider accepting the course as a prerequisite for any of their courses.  There is a substantial overlap with their circuits course, and for some courses (like the bioelectronics course) it would make sense to accept either course as a prereq, but EE is strongly defensive of their turf.

The turf battle is one I don’t really want to fight.  I’d be happy to have EE teach the course, if they would teach it, but their undergrad director seems to think that the circuits course has to be assignable to any of the EE faculty (many of whom are uninterested in teaching) and that the labs and the lectures need to be independent of each other, which rather defeats any hope of teaching a lab-centered applied circuits course.  None of the EE ladder-rank faculty have shown much interest in fixing the problems with the existing circuits course (such as cookbook labs with no design content, unrelated to the content of the lectures), though they been told about the problems for years and have gotten consistent negative reviews in student evaluations.

In part because of EE’s unwillingness to recognize the course, I’ll be getting only those students who don’t want to do electronics and have been avoiding it, though I had hoped to be able to use the course to encourage students into the bioelectronics track of the bioengineering major, to relieve some of the enrollment pressure on the biomolecular engineering track.

Teaching the students who have been deliberately avoiding taking electronics will make the course a bit more challenging to teach, but if we can reach them and the labs I’ve designed inspire them to really learn the material, then I think that the course could be quite successful with a broader audience. And I do want a broader audience—I deliberately lowered the math and physics requirements to include the courses taken by biology majors, not just the engineering/physics track (but I don’t think I can reduce the prereqs down to precalc and algebra-based physics, as we are going to be doing a lot with complex numbers, e^{j\omega t}, and optimization by taking derivatives).  The EE undergrad director has been pushing me to create a lower-level electronics course (because no one in his department is willing to do it), but the bioengineers need a solid engineering course with a substantial design component, and I’m not willing to water down the course to meet his fantasy of hordes of non-engineers taking general education EE courses.

At any rate, now that I know the class size, I can order parts.  I’ll try to put together the orders this weekend, so that I can have the tool kits and parts kits available by the first lab meeting.  I’ll order 20 copies of everything, even though only 18 students have signed up, so that it will be possible for one or two students to add late, even though this means that I’ll probably end up $100 out of pocket for unsold parts and tools.

In future years the students will pay a lab fee and the tool and part kits will be purchased and put together by the lab support staff.  This will save me a lot of effort, but I suspect that it will raise prices to the students by 20–40%.  The university discounts from qualified vendors are not that great, and the staff will not be as diligent as I’ve been about looking for bargains on the web (since many of the vendors I’ll be using are not in the University purchasing system, and adding new vendors is a bureaucratic nightmare, the staff will prefer to pay double the price and use a pre-approved vendor).

I’ll have to update the first draft parts list and start sending out the orders that have a long lead time (like the 3 custom PC boards: the hysteresis oscillator board, the pressure sensor board, and the instrumentation amp protoboards) by Monday.  I’ll keep records of the orders in a page for the blog, so that I’ll have a public record of the costs. I’m planning to be scrupulous about charging the students only actual costs for parts and tools (including a prorated share of shipping costs), but not having any markup. Because I’m not going through the University for the parts and tools, I don’t want there to be even a hint that I might be profiting off the students. (To the contrary, developing this course has cost me hundreds of dollars, but I paid that willingly rather than do things the conventional way and take an extra year or two to get a University budget, use University lab space to do the prototype development, and buy everything through Purchasing.  There is a lot to be said for working at home and not dealing with University bureaucrats.)




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