Gas station without pumps

2016 January 6

Second class of freshman design seminar

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:40
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Today was the second day for the freshman design seminar.  The first day was pretty straightforward, covering the point of class (to encourage them to think like engineers) and letting the know that they would be designing the class itself to a large extent. I gave them some constraints on that design:

  • The course is 2 units, which means 6 hours a week on average, and 3.5 of those hours will be taken up with lecture/lab time.
  • We have fairly easy access to electronics lab equipment, but pretty much any other tools I’ll have to bring from home.
  • There are no prerequisites for the course, and people have a wide range of different initial skill sets.
  • Because the course has a general-education code for “Practice: Collaborative Endeavor” the course must include instruction in how to work in groups. Most of the class was not happy with the group work they had to do in high school, as I would expect—I explained that the problem was most likely that the projects they had had to do were ones that were optimally done by one person, not a team, so dumping everything on one person actually took that person less time than trying to make the group work.

As a first assignment, I asked them to design time logs for the course to keep track of how much time they were spending on the class, both for their benefit and for mine, so that I could adjust assignments as needed to keep the workload reasonable.

I started today’s class with three topics:

  • Time log review
  • Choosing a microcontroller
  • Basic electronics

For the first topic, I displayed each of the time logs that students had turned in (these were Google Sheets that had been shared with me), discussing the good and not-so-good points of each.  I started with file names, as several were named rather generically, not providing the student name, course, or quarter.  There were several different approaches to recording time (in minutes, hours, or using Google Sheets’ h:mm:ss format), to categorizing activities, and to quantizing the recording (by day or by week).  Different ways of summarizing subtotals were done, and some students had color-coded the categories.

I suggested to the class that they now do a second prototype of their time log, using good ideas gathered from looking at other students’ logs.  I don’t know how much improvement I’ll see—despite my talk about iterative prototyping, most freshman are still in the once-and-done mode of thinking about school work.

Because programming and electronics were mentioned on the intake surveys as the most frequently requested things to learn in the course, I talked about the need to have a microcontroller to interface the electronics to a laptop. We then had a long discussion where I got the students to suggest things that one might look for in a microcontroller.  With very little prompting and just a little judicious interpretation of their comments, I got all the main ideas I wanted them to think about (price, physical size, community, tools, available software, speed, … ).  I also passed around a number of boards, so we could talk about the difference between the Arduino form factor and boards the plugged into breadboards, and about USB-powered vs wall-wart-powered boards.

I ran about 5 minutes over (I wonder if students will remember to record 75 minutes for the lecture), but by the end of the class we had narrowed down the choices to the Teensy LC and Teensy 3.2 boards.  I instructed them to look up the boards on-line and decide which they wanted to get (each individual can make their own choice—each would work equally well for the class). On Friday, I’ll have a sign-up sheet for students to order Teensy boards and breadboards.  I’ll toss in male header pins for free, but if they want female headers, they’ll have to order them also.  I’ll send off the orders over the weekend, and we should get them by the end of next week.

I did not get around to basic electronics today—I’ll start with that on Friday.

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