Gas station without pumps

2014 April 20

Designing courses to teach design—draft 4

Today I tried practicing my talk for Wednesday with my son as an audience (I figured I could get some useful feedback from him based on his years of theater experience). He asked me a number of good questions about my audience and what effect I wanted to have on them (the same sort of questions I ask my students, but often have difficulty applying myself). He gave me some good advice about changing the tone of my talk, making it more conversational and less lecturing.  (I’m good at that in my usual improvisational lecture style, but I know that I couldn’t keep to time if I tried to be extemporaneous with this material.)

After getting his suggestions, I rewrote the talk and delivered it to him again.  It runs about 9 minutes, and my target is “under 10 minutes”, so I think the length is about right. I welcome suggestions from my readers also—the talk isn’t until Wednesday, so I may have time to make more revisions.

Because of the time constraints, I’m going to read my talk—something I’ve never done before, so forgive me if the presentation is a bit awkward.

I want to talk to you today about two courses I created in the past two years. These courses were in part a reaction against the University pressure to create MOOCs. University education is not supposed to be mega-lecture courses, but students getting detailed feedback on their work from experts.

The courses I’m talking about are not easy, cheap fixes (like was claimed for MOOCs)—they are high-contact, hands-on courses, which take a lot of time to create and teach, and so are expensive to offer.

Designing the courses started from goals and constraints: “what problem was I trying to solve?” and “what resources were available?”

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

  • students weren’t getting enough engineering design practice (and that mostly in the senior year, which is much too late) and
  • 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

  • there was no room in the curriculum for adding more required courses,
  • there were no resources for new lab space or equipment, and
  • all existing engineering design courses had huge prerequisite chains.

Because I couldn’t ask someone else to create and teach a new course, the content had to be something I already knew or could learn quickly. So, no wet labs!

The first course I’ll talk about is a replacement for the previously required EE 101 circuits course. The EE course is a theory class 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. (That’s a general problem in the bioengineering program—“creeping prerequistism” in the 8 or 9 departments providing courses results in the students always preparing to do stuff, and not getting to the doing until senior year.)

The goal of the new Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course is to have students design and build simple amplifiers to interface biosensors to computers. We work with a range of sensors from easy ones like thermistors, microphones, and phototransistors to more difficult ones like EKG electrodes and strain-gauge pressure sensors.

The goal is for students to do design in every lab, even the first one where they know almost no electronics, and to write detailed design reports on each lab—not fill-in-the-blank worksheets, like they get in other intro labs.

The course was designed around the weekly design projects, not around 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.

There wasn’t a textbook available that covered things the way I wanted, so the students use free online materials instead. The savings on textbooks is used to justify a lab fee of  about $130 for tools and parts. They don’t get just a few parts, but 20 each of 64 different sizes of resistors and 10 each of 25 different sizes of capacitors, along with a microprocessor board and lots of other tools and parts. I don’t want their designs to be multiple-choice questions (“there are only 5 resistors in the kit—so one of them must be the right answer”).

Coming up with usable design exercises was hard—I tried lots of them at home, rejecting some as too hard, some as too easy, and tweaking others until they seemed feasible. I even designed three different custom printed circuit boards for the course: a board for pressure sensors, a hysteresis oscillator for soldering practice, and a prototyping board for their two instrumentation-amplifier projects. (pass boards around)

By the way, PC board design has gotten very cheap—I used free tools for doing the design, and the boards themselves cost only 50¢ to $1—it would have cost thousands to have done custom boards like this when I was first hired at UCSC.

Developing a hands-on course like this is not quick—creating the course took me almost 6 months of full-time effort!—so we’re probably not going to see huge numbers of such courses being started. But they’re worth it!

To make it somewhat easier for someone who wants to create a similar course, I posted all my notes on designing the course on my blog—over 100 blog posts before class even started! There are now around 240 posts (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+194F “Group Tutorial” before being submitted to CEP for approval. Incidentally, I highly recommend prototyping before submitting the paperwork for new courses—there were a lot of changes that came out of the prototype run. For example, the lab time was increased from 3 hours to 6 hours a week.

That change has a high cost—not only am I spending over 10 hours a week of direct classroom and lab time, but I’m spending every weekend 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. Even with the extra lab time, some labs ran over this quarter, so I’ve got still more tweaking to do for next year.

It isn’t just the design of a new course that is expensive—each time the course is offered takes a lot of faculty time. In addition to the 10 hours a week of direct contact, I have office hours, grading, prep time for both labs and lectures, and rewriting the lab handouts.  If I have 2 lab sections next year, I’ll have 16 hours a week of direct contact. Just providing feedback on the 5–10-page weekly design reports takes about 15 minutes per student per week (half an hour per report).

But enough about the circuits course.

The other course I want to talk about is one I created last quarter: 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 (it might get a “Collaborative Endeavor” gen-ed code).
I’d not taught a freshman class in over a decade, having taught mainly seniors and grad students, so I had no idea what skills and interests the students would bring to the class. With no prereqs for the course, 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.

Because I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t choose the projects ahead of time, but tried to adapt the course on the fly to what the students could do and what they wanted to do.  (They wanted to do more than they could do in the time available, of course.)

I did try out three or four projects ahead of time, looking for design projects with a low entry barrier. But all the projects I tried assumed some computer programming skills, and only one student had ever done any computer programming—a big hole in California high school education.  Even more concerning for engineering majors is that 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, adding some more electronics.

The class started with generic design concepts using a photospectrometer as an example. The concepts include such basics as specifying design goals and constraints, dividing a problem into subproblems, interface specification, and iterative design. The photospectrometer turned out to be too complex and unfamiliar to students, and I’ll probably start with a simpler design (perhaps a colorimeter) next year, and have the students design, build, and program it before they start on their own projects.

One positive thing—the course had more women than men, and at the end of the course they indicated that the course had made them more likely to continue in engineering!

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

  • The value of University education is in doing things and getting detailed feedback from experts, not sitting in lectures.
  • Students should be solving real problems with multiple solutions, not fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice toy exercises.
  • Hands-on courses require a lot of time from the professors, both to create and to run, and so they are expensive to offer.
  • Failure to teach such courses, though, makes a University education no longer worthy of the name.

UPDATE 2014 May 2: video available online (as a 784 Mbyte downloadable .mov file) from So you think your lecture course is better than a MOOC? April 23, 2014. I was the second of six speakers.



  1. I really like your take-aways! How successful were the students at *completing* the labs? Was everyone able to complete every lab with *some* design?

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2014 April 20 @ 18:42 | Reply

    • Last year every student completed every lab and got a working design. In some cases that meant my staying with them in the lab until 9 p.m.
      This year, so far every student has gotten working designs, but I’m still giving some “redo” grades on lab reports. An incorrect schematic or incorrect units on crucial measurements or design parameters is an automatic “redo”, no matter how good the report is otherwise.

      My automatic redo policy is roughly the equivalent of requiring all program submissions for a programming class to compile, but there are no automatic checks for schematics, in part because every schematic capture tool uses a different internal representation, and there is no common exchange format. We’re using a free on-line tool that provides only pictures (PNG or PDF) as output—the underlying schematic remains in the cloud in some unknown proprietary format.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 20 @ 18:59 | Reply

  2. Why not emphasize that a university’s competitive advantage includes bringing together bright, curious people. That interaction is key in design courses, but not in a MOOC. Focusing on MOOCs is competing with low-overhead, virtual organizations far more nimble. Competition is asymmetric and universities can win only by focusing on their strengths.

    Comment by miguelaznar — 2014 April 20 @ 19:21 | Reply

    • Although I do have the students do rotating partners in the circuits course, and I think that is a good way to handle the course, “bringing together bright, curious people” was not a design goal of these courses.

      The talk is part of a forum titled “So you think your lecture course is better than a MOOC?” and my response to pressure to create MOOCs was to move as far in the other direction as I could go.

      I agree with you that universities should concentrate on their strengths, and I don’t think that mega-lecture courses are one of them (though the state legislature thinks that is all they should budget for).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 20 @ 20:19 | Reply

  3. You are addressing one reason why I chose a four-year college rather than a university for an undergraduate education; I perceived the university education as overly focused on large-format lectures in the first two years. This choice predated the web as well as MOOCs; it’s not a particularly new thing. You open with a simple rejection of that premise; you are the best judge of whether your audience will follow.

    While your talk probably targets the actual intent of the forum, it is somewhat ironic that you have concentrated in detail on why your *lab* course is better than a MOOC. It’s been clear from reading your blog that you bring the same approach to your lectures; I might summarize it as interacting with students to build them up into being able to learn independently (at least, if they are willing to put in the required effort). I don’t know whether your audience cares about that distinction.

    It’s not clear to me that MOOCs are substantially worse than large-format lectures. In theory (and I suppose sometimes in practice) the instructor can better engage the students when they are physically present. But a well-prepared MOOC lets the student rewind through material that confuses them, etc. — all the arguments that have been made a thousand times for MOOCs. But, critically, to take advantage of a MOOC, a student must first have gained both the personal motivation to learn and the techniques of independent learning. Having learned to learn independently, I can learn from whatever material I have available; books, MOOCs, hands-on experimentation of my own… To me, a MOOC is a multimedia textbook, not a course of instruction. That doesn’t make a MOOC a bad thing, just a different thing; it does make it not a substitute for real instruction. But then, as I indicated, I haven’t perceived large-format lectures as a substitute for real instruction either.

    I’m not convinced by this talk that a MOOC is any worse for learning to learn than the typical large-format lecture course; they might just be different. I don’t know whether you see a difference between large-format lectures and MOOCs. Since you clearly bring the same approach to small-format lecture courses as you do to labs (modulo the reality-testing opportunity of labs) I know (as a reader of your blog) that your results are not limited to lab courses. I don’t know whether you see the MOOC as the natural progression of the large-format lecture.

    When I pay for instruction, I want instruction. I see the primary value of the undergraduate (at least) instruction as learning to learn independently. My impression from reading your blog is that you focus on that. And your focus on high-cost interaction with the students is what makes your courses valuable to them. So it might be worth being more explicit in summary that while you demonstrated this value in labs, it applies equally to lectures.

    An aside: I have been finding tremendous insight in Dr. Brooks’ “The Design of Design” which the topic echoes. Like “The Mythical Man-Month” it is primarily a collection of essays, but it is generic to characteristics of the design process, not particularly about computer science.

    Best of luck presenting!

    Comment by Michael K Johnson — 2014 April 21 @ 03:43 | Reply

    • I’m not convinced that a MOOC is much worse than a large-format lecture either, which is why I have not addressed that question. All my classes for the past decade have been relatively small ones where I could react to questions in class, get students to be actively involved, and provide detailed feedback on their work. That is, as I see it, the point of a University education.

      I chose to talk about these classes because they are the most recent ones I’ve designed, not because the lesson is exclusive to lab courses. I’d feel like a hypocrite if I talked about the tech writing course that I created 28 years ago, and abandoned after 14 years because I was burned out teaching it. (The course is still taught, but by a writing instructor, not an engineering professor, and it doesn’t seem to have the same transformative effect it had when engineering professors taught it.)

      Others will be talking about lecture courses, so I thought it worth reminding them that there are choices besides mega-lecture and MOOC.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 April 21 @ 08:42 | Reply

  4. […] week and a half ago, I gave a talk titled Designing Courses to Teach Design, after posting the text of the speech on this blog.  The talk went fairly well, though the time limit meant that I had to read the speech, which […]

    Pingback by Video of Designing Courses talk | Gas station without pumps — 2014 May 2 @ 15:51 | Reply

  5. […] your lecture course is better than a MOOC?”.  The text of my talk was posted to my blog at and the video is on the Academic Senate website […]

    Pingback by Teaching, Service, and Research | Gas station without pumps — 2015 September 10 @ 10:56 | Reply

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