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2014 January 21

Designing courses to teach design—draft 2

This Friday, I have to give a lightning talk that boils down my thoughts on the circuits course to ten minutes, without slides, for a university faculty workshop being put on by the Academic Senate: “So you think your lecture course is better than a MOOC?” Friday, January 24th at 3:30 p.m. in the Stevenson Event Center.  I posted some notes for the talk last week.  Here is my current draft of the text—please give me some suggestions in the comments for improvement.  The ending seems particularly awkward to me, but I’m having trouble fixing it.

Designing Courses to Teach Design

I believe that the main value of a University education does not come from MOOCable mega-lecture courses, but from students working in their field and getting detailed feedback on that work. I’ll talk today about some courses I’ve created recently to teach students to do engineering design. These courses are high-contact, hands-on courses—the antithesis of MOOC courses.

Design starts from goals and constraints: “what problem are you trying to solve?” and “what resources are available?” So what were my goals and constraints?

The two problems I was trying to solve were in the bioengineering curriculum:

  1. students weren’t getting enough engineering design practice (and what they were getting was mostly in the senior year, which is much too late) and
  2. too many students were selecting the biomolecular concentration, where we were exceeding our capacity for senior capstone and senior thesis projects.  The other concentrations were under-enrolled.

The main constraints were that

  1. there was no room in the curriculum for adding courses,
  2. there were no resources for new lab space or equipment, and
  3. all relevant engineering courses had huge prerequisite chains.

Furthermore, I would have to teach any new course myself, so the content had to be something I already knew or could learn quickly. Those constraints meant the new course would not have wet labs (though I encouraged wet-lab faculty to add design exercises to their existing courses).

My first partial solution was to replace the required EE circuits course with a new Applied Circuits course. The existing EE101 course is a theory class (mostly applied math) that prepares students to do design in later courses—but most bioengineering students never take those later courses, so were getting prepared for something they didn’t do. Due to “creeping prerequistism” in the 8 or 9 departments providing courses for the major, the bioengineering students were already taking far too many preparatory courses and far too few courses where they actually did things.

The goal of the new course was to have students design and build simple amplifiers to interface biosensors to computers. I chose a range of sensors from easy ones like thermistors, microphones, and phototransistors to more ones more difficult to interface like EKG electrodes and strain-gauge pressure sensors. I was not interested in cookbook, fill-in-the-blank labs—I wanted students to experience doing design in every lab, even the first one where they knew almost no electronics—and I wanted them to write detailed design reports on each lab.

The course was designed around the weekly design projects, not around preset topics that must be covered. Themes emerged only after the design projects were selected—the class comes back again and again to variations on voltage dividers and op amps with negative feedback.

Students used a free online textbook rather than buying one, but bought about $90 of tools and parts. I tried out every potential design exercise at home—rejecting some as too hard, some as too easy, and tweaking others until they seemed feasible. I designed and had fabricated three different printed circuit boards for the course (not counting two boards which I redesigned after testing the lab at home).  One of the PC boards is a prototyping board for students to solder their own amplifier designs for the pressure-sensor and EKG labs. (Pass boards around.)

Developing a hands-on course like this is not a trivial exercise. I spent about 6 months almost full time working on the course design (without course relief). I made over 100 blog posts about the design of the course before class even started (the URL is on the quarter-page handout, along with the URL for the course syllabus and lab assignments).

The course was prototyped last year as BME 194 “Group Tutorial” before being submitted to CEP for approval, and I wrote up notes after each class or lab (another 60 or so blog posts). Last year’s prototyping lead me to increase the lab time from 3 hours to 6 hours a week, which will mean rewriting all the lab handouts—splitting the material between the lab times and adding at-home or in-class design exercises between the two parts.

This course is expensive in terms of professor time: I’ll be teaching it next quarter for 2 sections with no TA, giving me 15 and a half hours a week of direct classroom and lab time (not counting office hours, grading, prep time, or rewriting the lab handouts). Just providing feedback on the 3–10-page weekly design reports will take another 10–20 hours.

The students taking Applied Circuits last year were mostly seniors who had been avoiding EE 101, rather than the sophomores I’d intended the class for. So the course did not provide early exposure to engineering design, nor did it direct more students to the bioelectronics concentration rather than the biomolecular one.

My second partial solution was to create a new freshman design seminar in conjunction with the student Biomedical Engineering Society. This course has no prereqs, is only 2 units, and does not count towards any major or campus requirements.

Unlike the Applied Circuits course, I didn’t choose the design projects for this course ahead of time, because I had no idea what skills and interests the students would bring to the class—I’ve not taught a freshman class in over a decade, having taught mainly seniors and grad students. I did try out 3 or 4 design projects on my own to gauge the skills needed to do them, but those projects all assumed some computer programming skills.

I’m prototyping the freshman design course this quarter as BME 94F and will be submitting course forms to CEP for approval at the end of the quarter. Once again, I’m blogging notes after each class meeting.

With no prereqs, I couldn’t assume that students had any relevant skills, though it turned out that all this year’s students had had biology, chemistry, and at least conceptual physics in high school. Only one student had ever done any computer programming, though—a big hole in California high school education—and only a few had any experience building anything. (AP physics classes were the most common exposure to building something.) On the first-day survey the students indicated an interest in learning some programming and electronics, so we’ll probably do something with an Arduino microcontroller board.

So far, I have been teaching generic design concepts using a photospectrometer as an example. The concepts include specifying design goals and constraints, dividing a problem into subproblems, interface specification, and iterative design. We’ll transition to applying these concepts to Arduino programming next week.

My third partial solution has been a complete overhaul of the bioengineering curriculum, which is currently before CEP for approval. No new courses were created for this overhaul, but all the concentrations were changed. For example, half the chemistry courses were removed from concentrations other than biomolecular, to make room for design courses in electronics, robotics, or computer science. And some the orphan math courses were removed from the biomolecular concentration to make room for more advanced biology. Long-term, I’m hoping to convince some of the departments to remove excessive prerequisites, so that students can take more interesting and useful courses before their senior year.

I could go on all afternoon about these courses and curriculum design, but I’m running out of  time, so I’ll leave you with these take-away messages:

  1. The value of University education is in detailed feedback from professors in labs and on written reports, not in the lectures.
  2. Students should be solving real problems with multiple solutions, not fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice toy exercises.
  3. These courses require a lot of time from the professors, and so are expensive to offer.
  4. Failure to teach such courses, though, makes the University education no longer worthy of the name.

For those of you not present—the quarter-page handout will have the URLs for this blog’s table of contents pages for the circuits course and the freshman design course, in addition to the two class web pages:

In addition to the quarter-page handout, I also plan to have copies of the prototyping board (both bare boards and ones that I used for testing out EKG or instrumentation amp circuits), one of the pressure sensors (on another PC board I designed), and the hysteresis oscillator boards.  If I can get it working on Friday, I may also wear the blinky EKG while I’m talking.

Preparing this talk has been weird for me—I can’t remember ever having scripted out a talk to this level of detail.  I usually spend many hours designing slides, and relying on the slides to trigger the appropriate talk.  Doing this short a talk without slides and without weeks to rehearse will probably require me to read the talk—something else I’ve never done.


  1. Nice. Your 4 take-away messages are right-on, and can’t be over-emphasized for a quality engineering education.

    Comment by profbillanderson — 2014 January 22 @ 05:40 | Reply

    • Latest news:

      Due to unexpected circumstances, we will postpone the COT forum “So you think your lecture course is better than a MOOC?” scheduled for Friday, January 24 at 3:30 p.m.

      Stay tuned for a new date in spring quarter.

      I wonder what’s up with that. Did someone forget to reserve the room? So much for spending yesterday preparing my talk. What’s the betting that next quarter they’ll schedule the event opposite one of my classes, so that I can’t do it.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 22 @ 15:10 | Reply

      • The reason was that they had some last-minute cancellations and ended up with too few speakers to justify the workshop this quarter. No word yet on when it will be rescheduled.

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 22 @ 15:14 | Reply

  2. […] read a thesis proposal, read a chapter of a thesis, replace the rear wheel on my bike, rewrite the designing courses to tech design talk, write a letter of recommendation for a former student trying to get a green card, feed the […]

    Pingback by Impedance, finally | Gas station without pumps — 2014 April 11 @ 21:32 | Reply

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