Gas station without pumps

2015 March 18

Freshman design projects moderately successful

I just finished grading this year’s freshman design projects. I think that the projects were more successful this year than last year, in part because I kept the students focussed on electronics and programming (for which they had lab access and which I could help them debug), and in part because the projects were somewhat less ambitious.

There were two groups doing EKGs and 4 groups doing blood pressure meters.  Both EKG groups managed to demonstrate their projects working, as did one of the blood-pressure groups.  (I’m being fairly generous here about what “working” means—they had to get their electronics to work, capture the data, and plot the waveforms, but further interpretation or software was not required.)  The other three blood pressure groups did not manage to demonstrate their projects, but one of them managed to plot waveforms for the pressure measurements (without getting their high-pass filter and amplifier working for the pulse measurements).

Some things I learned for next year:

  • Tell the students what op amp to get.  A number of students picked op amps that turned out to be rather old-fashioned ones with very low input impedance (as low as 2MΩ), rather limited output ranges, and external nulling circuits. The cheap MCP6002 or MCP6004 chips would have worked better at lower cost.  In fact, I gave one group that seemed to have a good schematic (but couldn’t get their circuit to work) an MCP6002 chip, which they wired in place of the op amp they had been using, and their circuit worked immediately.  I would have done the same for other groups, but the others with poorly chosen op amps were about a week behind and did not have circuits that were that close to being functional.
  • Warn students sooner not to use FedEx.  My son’s and my experience with FedEx this year has been that they are ludicrously slow. At least one group was burned by a ridiculously long delivery time, having ordered with FedEx delivery just hours before I warned the class about them.  (The US Post Office is faster and cheaper for lightweight electronics orders from Digi-Key.)
  • Students who never ask questions in class probably don’t understand much that is going on—all the groups that successfully demonstrated their projects had at least one active participant in class.
  • Students who fail to turn in their progress report are almost certainly not going to complete the project on time—I need to be more assertive in getting them moving and demanding that they show me their schematics.  Almost everyone had errors in their schematics on their first design (and one of the successful groups went through 4 incorrect designs before getting to one that worked).  Students that are afraid to show me incorrect or incomplete work don’t get the feedback they need to correct the problems—I need to normalize errors more and insist on seeing stuff, even if it is wrong.
  • The MXP5050DP pressure sensors are very easy for students to use, though a bit pricey at $16 each.  The built-in amplifier makes doing pressure measurements with an Arduino fairly trivial (hook up the three wires of the sensor to A0, +5V, and GND).  They were a good choice for the freshman design seminar, though I’ll continue to use MPX2053DP sensors without an integrated amplifier for the applied circuits class—that assignment is intended to get students to design with an instrumentation amp and to understand a bit about strain gauges.
  • Get the students to plot stuff earlier in the quarter. One group tried installing gnuplot on a Mac in the lab in the last few hours, which did not go well for them.  They did eventually find a plotting program that they could install and run, but then did not have time to run the data they collected through the filtering program I’d written for the class.  Their signals were pretty clean, though, and the plots they produced were good even with just the RC high-pass filter in their amplifier, without digital filtering.
  • The students seemed (for the most part) pretty excited about the projects—even those whose projects didn’t quite work seem to have gotten a lot out of the lab times.  I should look in a couple of years to see how many have stuck with engineering majors (I suspect that some might switch to computer science or computer engineering, rather than sticking with bioengineering, but that’s ok).

1 Comment »

  1. There are some real pearls of wisdom in here that apply to lots of classes!

    “Students who never ask questions in class probably don’t understand much that is going on ….”
    Or they all have some lack of understanding, but most are afraid to ask questions because they think it all sounds so clear that they must be dumb to not get what is going on. I suspect that is the value of active learning groups doing a problem in class: they get a comfort level when they see what others know.

    “Students who fail to turn in their progress report are almost certainly not going to complete the project on time”
    Same situation? I should probably force my students to turn in a homework problem rather than just give them a zero. They should be able to do SOMETHING, even if it is to copy down the problem, but many averse to turning in anything that they don’t think is perfect.

    “Get the students to plot stuff earlier in the quarter.”
    The problem of hidden prerequisites. Many things look easy until you try them, but it could be you need a checklist or just give them a grading rubric for the project that includes milestones like the plotting program and progress report.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2015 March 21 @ 20:23 | Reply

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