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2016 March 31

Pep talk for students frustrated at the end of the first week

Filed under: Circuits course,Data acquisition — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:48
Tags: , , ,

Some of the students in my Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course are feeling frustrated at the end of the first week (often due to imposter syndrome, not any real inability to do the work).  I sent them the following e-mail this evening:

To the class—a number of people are feeling overwhelmed, because of the wide range of preparation that people in the class have had.  This is supposed to be a first course in electronics, but a number of people are taking it after having had other electronics courses.  If the advanced students are allowed to dominate the questions in class, I’ll never know what help the students with less preparation (that is, the students the course is intended for) need.  If you are feeling overwhelmed or out-matched in class, please ask questions!  I know that there are people feeling like they need more help, but I don’t know exactly what help they need.
I could guess at what is causing people problems, but I’m likely to guess wrong, and I don’t want to waste a lot of time on reviewing stuff that everyone in the class gets, while not spending any time on the stuff that is really needed.
In short, I’m saying that I need a lot of questions from people in the bottom quarter of the class, and I don’t think I’ve been getting them.
Going to [the group tutor]’s sections is another way to catch up to those you perceive as being ahead of you.
It looked to me like everyone pretty much got labs 1 and 2 done, and that most of the class (though perhaps not everyone) had a decent grasp of aliasing.  A bigger fraction of the class had PteroDAQ and gnuplot installed and working by Lab 2 than in any previous offering of the course—so this looks to me like a very promising start to the quarter—it may have seemed chaotic to you with not all the parts arriving on time and last-minute patches to PteroDAQ to compensate for changes in laptop operating systems, but these startup pains are normal—I expect to have them every time the course is offered.
Lab 2 was much harder than intended this year, because of the resistor assortments not including 470kΩ resistors, and I was impressed by how the class rose to the challenge, despite not having had the lectures yet that would really support the design work done (those are scheduled for week 3, I believe). I’m going to have to rewrite parts of Lab 2 to allow for the possibility of not having the right parts available.
The deal with Lab 2 was this: I had given them in the book a circuit to build that consisted of a function generator, a capacitor, a pair of resistors, and the Teensy board with the PteroDAQ software. The idea in terms of skills was for them to learn how to lay things out on bread board, collect data with PteroDAQ and do some minimal plotting with gnuplot.  The concept they were supposed to be learning about was aliasing, which I was planning to cover in lecture yesterday, but I got diverted to other equally important topics.
The problem was that the design I gave them could not be implemented, because the resistor assortments (which only arrived yesterday, so I had no idea exactly what resistors would be in the kit) did not have the specified 470kΩ resistors!  I probably should have redesigned the circuit for them and had them build a different circuit which would have worked equivalently (like using 1MΩ and 4.7µF instead of 470kΩ and 10µF), but I did not know what resistor values they did have in their kits.
Instead, on the spur of the moment, I chose to have the students come up with a design themselves that has the same (or nearly the same) RC time constant as the circuit in the book.  If I’d had an hour to think about how to handle the challenge, I might have chosen a different approach. The assignment I gave them tied in well with yesterday’s unplanned lecture—without that lecture, I would not have considered them capable of redesigning the circuit.
 I think that everyone in the class did come up with a design that let them do at least a few recordings with PteroDAQ, though they did not get as much time to explore aliasing as I had originally intended. There were several different designs students came up with, including the 1MΩ and 4.7µF design, 10MΩ and 0.47µF, putting two 1MΩ in parallel to make 500kΩ, and building the 470kΩ out of a series chain of resistors.
Having a real design challenge for this first lab was in one way a good one (it had bothered me that there was no design element in the first week of lab), but this design challenge was too much for the first week.  After lab some students were feeling overwhelmed and wanting to drop the course—even though this year’s class is well ahead of previous year’s classes (even the students who are struggling are further along than their counterparts in previous years).
Now my challenge is to convince the students who are feeling stretched to stick with the class for another week or two, so that the lectures can catch up to what they need to know and they can have a more confident base to work from.


  1. Is there a way for you to pair up the “experts” with the “novices” and have the experts explain it to the novices? That can be a very good use of class time, but only if you wander around to make sure the explanations are correct!

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2016 April 2 @ 18:43 | Reply

    • Not really—the lecture hall is hard to visit the middle of and the lab is so crowded that people can’t move around much. I don’t think that we have 40% of the class being confident enough to explain to others—maybe 5–10%, which isn’t enough to help during class time, though it does help a bit during labs and out-of-lab group study.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2016 April 2 @ 21:49 | Reply

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