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2015 November 16

Considering splitting Applied Electronics course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:47
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I’ve been looking at changing my Applied Electronics course next year (not the version I’ll teach in Spring 2016, but for 2106–17).  One change is to move the course from “upper division” (3rd and 4th year) to “lower division” (1st and 2nd year), more accurately reflecting both the prerequisites needed and when students should take the course.
I have a few thoughts on problems in the course as it is:

  • The course is currently 7 units and a very heavy load for students. (A “unit” is supposed to be a median of 3 hours of work, including class and lab time, per week, so a 7-unit course should be 210–230 hours of work total.) The pace is fast and some students have trouble keeping up with the workload.  Moving the course to lower division will get more students earlier in their studies (a good thing), but they will be less able to handle a fast-pace course.
  • The time in lab and grading load are very high—it is difficult for me to keep up with, even spending full time on teaching the course.  This load will make it difficult to transfer the course to a different instructor, which will become necessary when I retire (and I’d like to do the switch to a different instructor gradually, so that I can train my replacement).
  • Not all the students need all the material in the course.  For the students in the biomolecular concentration, the course is required to get them some engineering design experience, in a curriculum that is overloaded with students learning about science others have done, rather than doing engineering. But half as much engineering design as in the current course may be enough for those students.
​My idea was to reduce the pace by splitting the 7-unit course into 2 4-unit courses.​  Students in two of the concentrations (biomolecular and assistive tech: cognitive/perceptual) might take only the first of the courses, while students in the other concentrations (bioelectronics and assistive tech: motor) would take both.

The advantage would be that students would have more time to digest the material and write their reports, as the 6-hour labs would be split over two weeks (three hours per week). They could get prelab homework back before the corresponding lab and have time to analyze data collected before writing up design reports. Lab time for each quarter would be 30 hours, instead of the current 60 hours, making it possible to have more lab sections, increasing the capacity of the course.  Lecture time would increase from the current 35 hours to 70 hours, which would reduce the intensity of lectures and allow more time for students to absorb the material and ask questions.  It would also allow me to drop the physics prerequisite, since I could take extra lectures as needed to cover the missing physics.  (The extra lecture time also explains the extra 1 credit over the current 7-unit course.)

In writing the book, I’ve already rearranged the material so that it could be used as a 2-quarter sequence (since I don’t know any other university in the US that routinely has 7-unit courses), so the curricular redesign needed is minimal (mainly adding more background material and slowing the pace of lectures).  The natural division occurs after Lab 7 (the low-power audio amp), with the second course having the remaining 5 labs (4 amplifier designs and the electrode measurement lab).
I’ve talked with other faculty whose teaching I respect about this possible redesign, and one of them thinks that it would help a lot in getting the students to learn the material—he teaches a course with somewhat overlapping material and is finding that students take a long time to get even the simpler concepts.  The other person I talked to was concerned that the students might not get enough engineering design if they only took the first half (a reasonable concern, since a number of the labs in the first half are more measurement than design labs). He suggested offering one (or both) 4-unit courses in the summer, which I might consider in future, but not this summer—I’ll be burned out after  teaching the intense version of Applied Electronics in the Spring.
Half the course would be a more feasible summer course than the whole thing, as it is already very compressed as a 10-week course, and the 6-week summer schedule would be crazy, so splitting the course does make summer session more feasible.
Some problems I see with the proposed redesign:
  • Needing the lab 2 quarters rather than 1 would increase the conflicts with the circuits course that uses the same lab space.  This should be easily handled by scheduling lab times and only allowing drop-ins when there are no scheduled labs.  The total number of lab hours a week are enough to handle both courses at once, as long as all labs are scheduled in advance.
  • I’m not willing to take on overload, so one of my other courses would have to be dropped from my regular schedule.
  • When I’m on sabbatical, someone will have to be found to teach either this course (no one else in our department is qualified) or the graduate courses I teach (there are some other qualified faculty for that, but whether they’d be willing is another question). I plan to take 1 quarter of sabbatical in each of 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2019–20 (or, at slightly reduced sabbatical salary, every year for the next 5 years).


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