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2014 April 13

Designing courses to teach design—draft 3

The talk I was scheduled to give last quarter (2014 Feb 24) was rescheduled, because two of the four speakers were unable to make that date.  It is now scheduled for Wed 2014 Apr 23  at 3:30 in the Merrill Cultural Center, which used to be the Merrill Dining Hall, before they consolidated dining halls in the east colleges. There are now 6 speakers in 90 minutes, which means 15 minutes each (maybe 10 minutes speaking, 5 minutes for questions).  I’ll have to run over from my class which ends at 3:10 on the opposite side of campus (0.6 miles, 13 minutes according to Google Maps), though running may be difficult along the crowded sidewalks between classes.

The talk needs to be updated from last quarter, as I have now taught prototype runs for both the applied circuits class and the freshman design class, and am in the second run of the applied circuits class.

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 ths year and last 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 required 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 have 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 is 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 ones more difficult to interface like EKG electrodes and strain-gauge pressure sensors. I’m not interested in cookbook, fill-in-the-blank labs—I want students to experience doing design in every lab, even the first one where they knew almost no electronics—and I want them to write detailed design reports on each lab, not fill-in-the-blank worksheets, like they get in chem and physics labs, and even intro EE labs.

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, complex impedance, 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, and I now have over 230 posts (the URL is on the quarter-page handout, along with the URL for the course syllabus and lab assignments).  Since the posts average a couple of pages, this is more writing than a textbook (though not nearly as organized).

The course was prototyped last year as BME 194+194F “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 means I’m spending a lot of time this quarter 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. Some of the fixes have worked well (students got comfortable plotting their data with gnuplot weeks earlier this year), but we’ve still run over time in some labs, even with 6 hours a week of lab, so more tweaking is needed.

This course is expensive in terms of professor time: I’m spending over 10 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 5–10-page weekly design reports takes about 15 minutes per student per week (half an hour per report).

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. This year, I have juniors and seniors, but still no sophomores. So the course still does not provide early exposure to engineering design, nor does it direct more students to the bioelectronics concentration rather than the biomolecular one (those there’s still hope for the latter).

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’d 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 prototyped the freshman design course last quarter as BME 94F and have submitted course forms to CEP for approval. Once again, I blogged notes after each class meeting (only about 39 posts, though—this was a less intensive effort on my part).

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 did a little programming with an Arduino microcontroller board—I’ll try to up that content next year.

I started out 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.The photospectrometer turned out to be too complex, and I’ll probably start with a simpler colorimeter next year, and have the students design, build, and program it before they start on their own projects.

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 more courses in electronics, robotics, psychology, 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 other 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 they 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 again, 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.  For research talks, I usually spend many hours designing slides, and relying on the slides to trigger the appropriate talk. For classes, I usually think obsessively about the material for a day or two ahead of time, sometimes writing down a few key words to trigger my memory, but mainly giving an extemporaneous performance that relies heavily on audience participation. I had one memorable experience where a student asked me for a copy of my lecture notes after a class—I handed her the 1″ PostIt that had my notes, but warned her that I’d only covered the first word that day, and that it would take the rest of the week to cover the rest.

Doing this short a talk without slides and without time to rehearse will probably require me to read the talk—something else I’ve never done. (I know, I should have rehearsed during our one-week spring break, but I had a 2-day RNA research symposium, a faculty meeting about who we would offer our faculty slot to, meetings with grad students, and feverish rewriting of the first few lab handouts for the circuits course.)

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