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2013 July 6

Disseminating the applied circuits labs

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:41
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The post I just published about academic conferences lead me to thinking (again) about how I should disseminate my course design (or individual lab designs) for the Applied Circuits course.  I suppose I should write up a paper and submit it to a conference or some journal like the Journal of Engineering Education.

One problem is that my course designs are not education research—they are attempts to solve particular curricular problems by taking advantage of my strengths as a teacher.  Some of the course design generalizes to other teachers and other institutions with somewhat different curricular needs, but there is no controlled experiment to say that my course design is “better” than another is some predefined, measurable way.

I’m not sure where this sort of here-are-some-good-ideas-you-may-be-able-to-use course design work fits in academic publishing.  If I were teaching physics, I would probably submit to The Physics Teacher, but I don’t know what the closest equivalent is in engineering—particularly interdisciplinary stuff like teaching circuits to bioengineers.  There don’t seem to be good journals intended for disseminating instructional labs and curricular design. Maybe Advances in Engineering Education would be a better fit than Journal of Engineering Education, even if I don’t feel that my course design contains “significant, proven innovations in engineering education practice, especially those that are best presented through the creative use of multimedia.”

Of course, distilling down the 200–400 pages of notes on my circuits course that I’ve collected on this blog to a conference presentation or a journal article is a daunting task—one that I’ll probably keep putting off until it is so stale that even I’m not interested in it any more.  It might even be easier to turn the notes into a book than into an article, since I would not have to do 100-to-1 compression.

I’m not sure who the right audience for such a book would be—instructors trying to create a new course, students taking my course, hobbyists wanting to learn the material at home, … ? That is, should I be writing about a case study in course design, should I be trying to create a textbook for the course, or should I be trying to put together a self-study book that could accompany a kit of parts for people to learn electronics at home?

Again, the book project is big enough that I’d probably keep putting off indefinitely.  If I was sure there was an audience, I’d be more inclined to put in the effort to disseminate the material beyond this blog, though.

Another approach for disseminating the course materials would be to put together stand-alone kits for each lab (with detailed tutorials) that could be sold independently.  Releasing one lab at a time would be a more incremental effort than doing all 10 labs in one package, but would require some redesign, both for reduced expectations of lab equipment and to make the kits more modular.

I suspect that one could do most of the experiments of the circuits course for about $360 in lab equipment and tools, using something like the Velleman Lab2U unit (which PartsExpress sells for $210), a $40 multimeter,  a $17 soldering station, an Arduino, and the $66 bag of tools and parts I put together for the course.  The Lab2U is only a single power supply, so some of the projects that used a multiple supply would need to be redesigned—most notably the class-D power amp.  Unfortunately, $360 is too big a chunk of money for anyone but a dedicated hobbyist, who quite likely already has most of the needed equipment.

Making the kits more modular might be difficult. For example, many of the labs require students to choose resistors and capacitors from a large set of possibilities, since their lab kit contained 10 each of 112 different resistors and 10 each of 25 different ceramic capacitors.  It is easy to justify the cost of those parts spread over 10 labs, but harder to provide that much selection for a single lab.  Perhaps one would have to sell a core kit (with breadboard, resistors, capacitors, …) to use with the Arduino and add-on kits for each lab.  The core kit would need to have some fundamental experiments (like RC time constants), so that it would be instructional even without add-ons.

I wonder if there is a market for such lab kits, and how I would find out if there were a market (without sinking months of my time and thousands of dollars). I wouldn’t want to assemble or market the resulting lab kits either, but would want to distribute them through a company like Sparkfun electronics, Adafruit Industries, or Seeedstudio, who have already set up the necessary business infrastructure.

I also wonder whether I’m capable of writing the tutorials at an introductory enough level to work for hobbyists, while still covering enough of the theory.  I’ve never cared for kits that have great assembly instructions, but treat the way the things works as too difficult for the purchaser of the kit.

Writing instructions that included the use of an oscilloscope or multimeter, when there are many different ones that the person may be trying to use, would be a very challenging task.  Oscilloscopes in particular have evolved to have many radically different user interfaces, some of which are very complicated.

Also, all my writing has been for well-educated people: college professors, university students chosen from the top 10% of high school students, my loyal blog readers, … .  Can I make my writing intelligible for an average, or slightly above average, high school student, without sounding condescending or patronizing?  From the rather unsuccessful attempts I’ve seen in kit instructions in the past, that is not an easy task.

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