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2015 January 17

How big is a course?

Filed under: Circuits course,freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:42
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One of the questions that comes up when designing a course is how much work the course should be. When deciding whether to include a particular topic, exercise, reading assignment, project, test, paper, or whatever, there is always the question whether there is enough time for it, and whether it is important enough to be worth the time.  So how much time is there to allocate for a course?

In the UC system, most of the campus are on a quarter system (UCB and UC Merced are on semesters), with approximately 10 weeks of instruction followed by one week of exams. The exact number of instructional hours varies a bit from quarter to quarter, and between MWF and TTh classes, thanks to almost all holidays now being scheduled for Mondays.  All the quarter-based campuses have a 180-unit graduation requirement, where a unit is supposed to represent 3 hours of work a week for the 11 weeks of the quarter, so the 180-unit graduation requirement is supposed to mean 5940 hours of work (about 1485 a year).

UCSC is different from the other campuses, in that our courses are by default 5 units, while the other campuses generally have 3-unit or 4-unit courses. What I was not aware of until recently, however, is that UCSC also differs from the other campuses in terms of how many contact hours the students get with the professors per unit. UCSC 5-unit courses meet for 210 minutes per week. A full course, including exam, is 2100+180=2280 minutes, or 456 minutes per credit. Not counting the exam, there are 420 minutes per credit.  (In actual schedules, there may be up to 105 minutes of lecture missing due to holidays, reducing the time to as little as 399 minutes of lecture per credit.)

According to a proposal about changing class scheduling at UCSC, written in 2011, the other quarter-based campuses have at most 375 lecture minutes per credit, which lets them pack more class credits per classroom seat than UCSC does. (UCSC suffers a double whammy here, as it has the fewest classroom seats per student, thanks to former chancellors who grew the student population rapidly, on the theory that this would force the state to provide the needed infrastructure—the administrators who made this bone-headed prediction have since gone elsewhere, while the faculty are left with too many students and too few classroom seats.)

Of course, some classes involve far more contact hours. I’m a great believer in high-contact courses, where the students spend time with the faculty. For example, my Applied Circuits class in the spring has me in the classroom with the students for 3.5 hours a week, and in lab with them for another 6 hours a week, for 5700 minutes—at 7 credits that’s 814 minutes per credit,  80–90% more than the usual course. The senior design seminar I’m teaching this quarter has 1155 minutes of class for 2 credits plus 180 minutes per student of one-on-one meetings, or 668 minutes per credit—50–60% more than normal.  (Note: my time for 19 students is 76.25 hours for that class—over 5 times the usual contact hours for a 2-unit course, and that’s not counting the grading time for reading 4 drafts each of 19 theses, nor prep time.)  The freshman design seminar I’m also teaching  this quarter has 2030 contact minutes, for a 2-unit course, or 1015 minutes per credit (2.2–2.4 times normal contact hours). Those are just the scheduled contact hours—I also generally have 2–3 hours a week of office hours, and during the circuits course, I often have to stay late in the lab to help students finish.

So when I’m deciding how much homework to assign in, say, the freshman design seminar, I have to start with the 66 hours that the students are supposed to work for a 2-unit course, then subtract off the 33.83 hours of class time, and divide by 10 weeks to get about 3.2 hours of homework a week (or 3 hours a week, if some is done during exam week).  That is not a lot of homework, particularly if I want students to do some web searching and reading on their own, or do design tasks, which tend to be rather open-ended. It’s a good thing that the freshman design course doesn’t have any specifically mandated content—I can take the classes wherever student interests and abilities lead, without having to worry about whether I’ve covered everything.

Note that engineering students typically take a 17–18-unit load at UCSC (3 5-unit classes, plus labs), which comes to a 51–54-hour week, if they are doing what they are supposed to for all their classes. This workload does not allow much time for students to do a part-time job, and certainly not a full-time one. Some students, forced by the legislature’s defunding of the University to work to pay their tuition, end up with 20-hour work weeks on top of the 54 hours they are (or should be) putting in as students. The legislators may have partied their way through school and think that all students do, but the engineering students I see don’t have that luxury—being a full-time engineering student is not compatible with more than 5–10 hours a week of non-class-related work.

Engineering students at UCSC are usually advised to take two technical courses and one non-technical one. The justification is not that the students need the humanities for intellectual balance (even if it is true, students wouldn’t buy into that justification). Instead, the justification that the students accept is that grade inflation has gotten so extreme in the humanities that they can get an A– doing only half as much work as a 5-unit class should require, so that they have enough time to work on their technical courses or hold a part-time job to pay for college.


2015 January 4

New tech writing course

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:07
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In my request for comments, xykademiqz mentioned that she’d like to hear about the tech writing course I’m planning.

Planning this course has been a bit of weird exercise for me, because it is the first time that I’m designing a course that I won’t teach. Normally, I design courses that I teach, which occasionally get transferred to some other teacher.  Here, I’m trying to modify a course I designed and taught for a long time, adapting it to a new audience. But I’ve not taught the original course since Winter 2003 (11 years ago!), and I don’t plan to teach this one, as I already have a more-than-full teaching load.  I’ve paid my dues teaching tech writing, having taught it sixteen times (1987–2003).

The course I originally created was for computer engineering majors, but this one is for bioengineers, specifically those in the biomolecular engineering concentration.

The rest of this post is the “Undergraduate Supplemental Sheet—Information to accompany Request for Course Approval” that is required at UCSC for approval of any new course. I have sent the form off to the Committee on Educational Policy, the committee of the Academic Senate that reviews new courses. I’m hoping to get approval for our department to offer this course in Spring 2015, so there isn’t much time for revision if they decide that they don’t like something. I’ve left a number of design questions in the document, although this is not usually done for CEP course approvals, to emphasize that this course is a work in progress, and to give them some idea of the adjustments that are likely to be needed in the first couple of years. The course design has been discussed by a group of five faculty, two or whom are likely to teach the course, and one of whom is likely to be a guest lecturer for it.  I welcome further discussion—particularly suggestions for more specific exercises (for the graphics and the library puzzle, for example).


Sponsoring Agency: Biomolecular Engineering Course #: 185
Catalog Title: Technical Writing for Biomolecular Engineers
Catalog copy:

Writing by biomolecular engineers, not to general audiences, but to engineers, engineering managers, and technical writers. Exercises include job application and resume, library puzzle, graphics, lab protocols, document specification, progress report, survey article or research proposal, poster, and oral presentation.

Enrollment limited to bioengineering majors, or by permission of instructor.

Prerequisite(s): satisfaction of Entry Level Writing and Composition requirements; and Biology 101L (biochemistry lab).
BIOL 101L may be taken concurrently.

Enrollment limited to 20.

1. Are you proposing a revision to an existing course?  If so give the name, number, and GE designations (if applicable) currently held.


2. In concrete, substantive terms explain how the course will proceed. List the major topics to be covered, preferably by week.

The course will consist primarily of writing and feedback on that writing, with some lectures and readings on common problems. There will be a substantive writing assignment due every week, and the week-by-week outline below lists the assignment that the student will complete that week—some will need to have been started much sooner, so that students may be working on multiple assignments simultaneously.

The list below is the initial design of the course, but we expect that the assignments in the course will evolve, depending on how well they work to develop students’ facility and scientific and engineering writing

Week 1: Job application letter, resume, and letter of recommendation.
The purpose of this assignment is to focus student attention on audience assessment, in a practical format that they see the point of.

Week 2: Library research.

Students will have a library information session, in which they learn how to locate lab protocols, material safety data sheets, and databases of important molecular biology reagents. There will be a library search quiz, with specific questions relevant to biomolecular engineers that use databases learned about in the library information session.  Students will have to write up their search strategies, and not just the results of their searches.

Correct citations in a consistent style will be essential, though students will not be held to any particular style, as the field has an enormous diversity of preferred styles. Use of citation tools (such as Zotero or BibTeX) will be strongly encouraged.

The library puzzle questions will feed into the later assignments: data for the graphics assignment, lab protocols that can be blended together for the lab protocol assignment, and so forth.

Design questions to explore in the first couple of years: can we come up with suitable questions, similar in difficulty to those in each year?  How much can questions be re-used from year to year?  Can lab managers and librarians be enlisted to help update the questions frequently?

Weeks 3&4: Design of scientific graphics

Students will prepare at least three different graphics, including a scatter diagram, a line or box plot with error bars, and a block or cartoon diagram of a process. Figures for this assignment must be generated by the student, not copied from the web or other sources. Students will be allowed to use almost any graphics tool (gnuplot, R, MATLAB, matplotlib, Python, Inkscape, …) except Excel, which is often the only tool students have previously used, and which produces unacceptable graphics with the default settings.

Concepts taught will include some of the main concepts in Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information, though that book will not be required for the course (too expensive for the small amount the students will use). Important concepts include avoiding chart junk (especially fake 3D), proper scale and range of axes (including when to use log scales), “up is good”, people only understand straight lines, and making the graphics tell the story.

Also included will be the notion of floating figures with figure numbers and paragraph-long captions, as many students do not seem to have learned this standard style for scientific and engineering reports before their senior thesis.

Design questions for the first few years: What public data sets should we use? (Census data? RNA expression data?) Students need to be able to find the data as part of the library puzzle.  How should the material be broken up between the two weeks—two separate assignments or draft and final version?  For the first run, it would probably be easier to have separate assignments.

Week 5: Writing a lab protocol.

Many biomolecular engineers will end up with jobs as lab technicians, where they will have to read and write lab protocols. This assignment is intended to get them familiar with the format and conventions.

Design question: What lab protocol can students be asked to write? It must be simple enough that an undergrad can write it, but not just a copying task from some source of protocols.

Staffing questions: Will the instructors that we hire for BME 185 be able to read and comment on lab protocols appropriately (pointing out missing steps or incorrect units, for example)? Will we need a guest lecture explaining the protocol that the students will then write up?

Discussions among writing faculty and biomolecular wet-lab researchers have lead to a few ideas for the protocol to try for the first offering.  It looks likely that a guest lecture from a wet-lab researcher will be needed from someone familiar with the protocol to be written.

Week 6: Final project proposal

The students will write a proposal for the paper they will write as the final project for the course.  Note that this is not a research proposal, but a writing proposal, in which they will describe the topic, the intended audience, and the format of the project.

The project should be a survey article, prior-work section of a senior thesis, or other project that involves substantial library research.  Students should include at least five citations for work that they will be consulting in writing the project.

Key concepts for proposal writing include getting the precise definition of the research question or design goal into the first paragraph.  For this assignment the design goal is the paper to be written, and the specifications for that paper.

Week 7:    Oral presentation

Students do a 5-10-minute individual (not group) oral presentation with visual aids (PowerPoint, Keynote, HTML, or
PDF format).  Students will be taught the design of visual aids for scientific talks (which have a little more content than some other types of visual aids) as well as standard public speaking techniques for eye contact, gestures, expressive voice, pace of talk, and controlling nervousness.

It may be a good idea to have half a class period dedicated to voice projection, including going out into the woods to practice speaking loudly.  The course will not cover techniques for working with microphones, as that is a more specialized skill that would require extra equipment in the classroom.

Design questions to address in the first few years:

The oral presentations will have to be spread out over several class periods, and they represent a major constraint on the class size. At 10 minutes, the oral presentations for a 20-student class would consume an entire week of class time. How much class time can be spent on presentations?  Will 5-minute presentations suffice?

Video recording the presentations and having individual feedback on the presentations would be valuable, but the logistics of arranging for the video recording and scheduling feedback sessions may be too difficult to sustain.  Just rendering videos into a usable format can take 10 times as long as the recording.  Is there any campus-level support for doing this?

Week 8:    E-mail Progress Report and draft

Students write a 100-200-word e-mail memo explaining the status of their final project and attach a draft of their paper for detailed feedback.  This assignment practices professional e-mail style, the content of progress reports, and ensures that they do not put off starting their final report.

Class time will include discussion of professional e-mail and social media (such as blogs), and the differences from the informal social media they may be used to.

Week 9:    Poster presentation

Students design, print, and present a poster, preferably on a research topic they are pursuing in another course.  This will usually be related to their final project, but it may be a different project.

Students will be taught the visual flow of posters, the trade-off between detailed information and readability of a poster, font sizes, color choices, and the need for posters to be comprehensible as stand-alone documents.

Because of the time required to print a poster, students will probably be presenting their posters in week 10, or even during the scheduled final exam time.

Week 10:    Final project report will be due at the time of the final exam slot.

3. System-wide Senate Regulation 760 specifies that 1 academic credit corresponds to 3 hours of work per week for the student in a 10-week quarter.  Please briefly explain how the course will lead to the appropriate amount of work with reference to e.g., lectures, sections, reading and writing assignments, examination preparation, field trips, providing specific estimate of the number of hours devoted to each.
[Please note that if significant changes are proposed to the format of the course after its initial approval, you will need to submit new course approval paperwork to answer this question in light of the new course format.]

There will be 3.5 lecture hours a week, about 1.5 hours of reading, and 10 hours of writing and editing, for a total of 15 hours a week.

4. Include a complete reading list or its equivalent in other media.

The main text book will be Huckin and Olsen’s Technical Writing and Communication for Nonnative Speakers of English (ISBN 978-0070308251, which is out of print but is available used for under $30, see with particular attention to Part 5 (Readability).  Within Part 5, Chapters 21 (Readability: General Principles), 22 (Writing Paragraphs), 24 (Maintaining Focus), and 25 (Creating Flow between Sentences) are particularly valuable.

Individual students may be referred to chapters in Part 6 (Review of Grammar, Style and Vocabulary Building) as needed.  Chapters 29 (Indefinite Articles) and 30 (The Definite Article) are particularly valuable for non-native speakers whose native language does not use articles (Russian, for example, and many Asian languages).

Design question:  will sufficient copies of the book remain available at a reasonable price?  Is there any other text that provides the quality of parts 5 and 6 of Huckin and Olsen for readability and non-native grammar?

5. State the basis on which evaluation of individual students’ achievements in this course will be made by the instructor (e.g., class participation, examinations, papers, projects). Enumerate the minimum required learning outcomes for a student to pass this course. (Example: ability to do comparative analysis of a Western and a non-Western text.) Provide information on how these components are weighted.

Students will be evaluated on their writing and on their oral and poster presentations.  Each of the assignments will have roughly equal weight, with perhaps a little more weight on assignments towards the end of the quarter than ones toward the beginning (so that students whose writing improves during the quarter are suitably rewarded).

6. Final examinations are required of all undergraduate courses unless CEP approves an alternate method of comprehensive evaluation (e.g., a term paper). Note: final papers in lieu of final examinations must be due during final examination week, and not before. If the course does not have a final examination, indicate the alternative method of comprehensive evaluation.

There is no final examination, as the skills of interest in this class are those displayed when students have adequate time, not those testable in a 3-hour time slot.  The final report for the quarter, which is a culmination of several intermediate assignments, will be due at the final exam time.  Although the report itself only carries between 10% and 20% of the total grade, previous assignments that lead to the report make the total weight of the project closer to 50% of the grade.

The poster presentation session may be held during the final exam time slot, though it is clearly not a final exam.

7. Please describe the learning objectives that you would ascribe to this course: What do you expect the student to be able to do or understand that would not have been expected of them before taking the class? How do these outcomes support the larger goals of the program(s) in which the course is embedded? (Example: the learning outcome of ability to do comparative analysis of a Western and non-Western text support the Literature objective of cross-cultural inquiry.)

After finishing this course, students should be able to write comprehensible technical reports on biomolecular engineering topics, produce research posters, and prepare and give oral presentations with visual aids on technical topics.

8. List other UCSC courses covering similar material (if any) and how the proposed course differs from these existing courses.

The course is very similar to Computer Engineering 185, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, after which it is modeled.  The main differences are in the background of the students and in the topics the students are expected to write about.  The biomolecular engineering class assumes more biology background and less programming background.  The “lab protocol” assignment, for example, is highly typical of the sort of writing biomolecular engineers may do in industry, but is not at all similar to what computer engineers write (user documentation and in-program documentation).

A major reason for creating this course is that CMPE 185 has reached capacity, and more variants of it are needed for different engineering majors.  This course is an attempt to provide that variant for biomolecular engineers, as they are the students currently required to take CMPE 185 who fit the course least well.

9. List expected resource requirements including course support and specialized facilities or equipment for divisional review. (This information must also be reported to the scheduling office each quarter the course is offered.)

No special facilities are needed for this course, but it needs a high instructor-to-student ratio, in order to provide the extensive feedback necessary for a writing class with large weekly assignments.  No more than 20 students per instructor or TA is feasible.

Poster printing (through Baskin Engineering Lab Services) will be needed, and the department is willing to pay for poster printing at the current rates (but not rush fees, which will be the student responsibility).

10. If applicable, justify any pre-requisites, co-requisites, or enrollment restrictions proposed for this course.  For pre-requisites or co-requisites sponsored by other departments/programs, please provide evidence of consultation.

Students must have already completed the C1 and C2 writing courses, so that the instructor can focus on discipline-specific writing requirements and not have to spend much time on the basics of writing.

Students must have completed enough biology or biotech courses to be able to read and write technical reports on biomolecular engineering. In order to write lab protocols, students need to have followed molecular biology protocols themselves, which they encounter in BIOL 101L (or the discontinued older equivalents BIOL 100K or BME 150L).

BIOL 101L is already a required course for the biomolecular engineering concentration of the bioengineering BS degree, so including it as a prerequisite does not increase the demand for the course.

One possible problem is that the prerequisite chain to BIOL 101L is already very long, and adding the whole prerequisite chain before BME 185 and having BME 123T require CMPE 185 or BME 185 as prereq may constrain when students can take BME 185 too tightly. Offering BME 185 multiple times a year (Fall, Winter, Summer, for example) would alleviate this problem, if we can afford that many sections.  Some students who have molecular biology lab experience before transferring to UCSC or from individual research may be able to take BME 185 without BME 101L.

11. Proposals for new or revised Disciplinary Communication courses will be considered within the context of the approved DC plan for the relevant major(s).  If applicable, please complete and submit: the Disciplinary Communication Statement Form—new proposals (Word or PDF) or Disciplinary Communication—revisions to approved plans (Word or

The current DC requirement for bioengineering centers on CMPE 185, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, with more communication practice in the capstone requirement.

This new course is intended to be a compatible substitute for CMPE 185 for bioengineers, specifically tailored for the biomolecular concentration (for whom the current CMPE 185 is not as good a fit).

The revision to the current plan is trivial:  everywhere that CMPE 185 is mentioned, the new plan will say “CMPE 185 or BME 185”.

12. If you are requesting a GE designation for the proposed course, please justify your request by answering the questions listed in the attached guidelines. Please make reference to specific elements in the course or syllabus when answering these questions.

No designation other than DC is sought.

2014 June 12

Starting on book for circuits lab—scheduling labs

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:59
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In Revised plan for circuits labs I provided a tentative schedule for the applied circuits course and lab, which I ended up not really following (dropping the FET measurements, moving the sampling lab after the loudspeaker lab, and swapping the order of the pressure sensor and the class-D amplifier).

I’m now trying to turn the course lab handouts into a book (which means adding everything that was previously just in lectures), and I’m trying to rearrange the lab schedule to fit better into the 10-week quarter and to flow a little better pedagogically.

In this post, I’ll ignore the lecture component, but just look at a possible reordering of the labs.  Squeezing the KL25Z soldering and both halves of the thermistor lab was too much, and the sampling and aliasing lab did not work well late in the quarter, so I’ll strip the filter design out of the sampling lab and simplify it a bit to get it in the first week, and move the thermistor lab fully to the second week.  I’ll have to squeeze somewhere else, and I think that the best bet is the hysteresis lab, which took far longer than it should have.  I still want to have data-analysis Wednesdays, and reports due on Fridays.

Tuesday week 1 Unpacking parts, labeling capacitor bags, using wire strippers, making clip leads, Soldering headers onto KL25Z boards, downloading data logger to KL25Z.See soldering instructions at Soldering headers on a Freedom board and Jameco soldering tips
Thursday week 1 Sampling and aliasing lab (no filter design)
Tuesday week 2 Measuring input resistance of multimeter, and of oscilloscope.
measuring thermistor resistance at many temperatures.
Thursday week 2 Measuring voltage of thermistor voltage divider, recording voltage vs. time.
Tuesday week 3 Measure I-vs-V DC characteristic of resistor and of electret mic, both with multimeter and with KL25Z board.
Thursday week 3 Look at mic with resistor load on oscilloscope (AC & DC coupling).  Filter design for AC coupling. Loudspeaker on function generator?
Tuesday week 4 Characterizing impedance of loudspeaker vs. frequency
Thursday week 4 Characterize hysteresis in Schmitt trigger chip using data logger. Breadboard hysteresis oscillator with various R and C values, measuring frequency or period (oscilloscope or frequency meter?).
Make and test touch sensor with breadboard oscillator. Solder hysteresis oscillator. Estimate capacitance of touch from change in period of hysteresis oscillator.
Tuesday week 5 Impedance of stainless steel (polarizing) electrodes in different NaCl concentrations (at several frequencies).
Thursday week 5 Impedance of Ag/AgCl (non-polarizing) electrodes in different NaCl concentrations (at several frequencies)
Tuesday week 6 Low-power single-stage audio amplifier with op amp
Thursday week 6 catchup day? characterizing photodiode or phototransistor?
Tuesday week 7 Pressure sensor day 1: design and soldering instrumentation amp prototype board
Thursday week 7 Pressure sensor day 2: further debugging.
Recording pressure pulses from blood-pressure cuff.
Tuesday week 8 Photodiode or phototransistor with single-stage simple transimpedance amplifier.
Freeform soldering to attach leads for fingertip transmission sensor.
Cut-and-try design for transimpedance gain needed to see reasonable signal without saturating amplifier. (Determine AC and DC components of current)
Thursday week 8 Fingertip pulse sensor with 2-stage amplifier and bandpass filtering.
Tuesday week 9 class D audio amplifier day 1(preamp and comparators) (problem with Memorial Day on Monday?)
Thursday week 9 class D audio amplifier day 2 (output stage)
Tuesday week 10 EKG day 1:  breadboard and debugging (confident students could go directly to soldering)
Thursday week 10 EKG day 2: soldering, debugging, and demo.  Last day for any catchup labs.

I’m not really comfortable with the class-D amplifier in the week with Memorial Day. I’ll have to double check when Memorial Day comes next year.

2014 May 2

Video of Designing Courses talk

Filed under: Circuits course,freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:51
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A 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 I’ve never done in 32 years of teaching.  It was kind of weird having a set speech to give, rather than extemporizing as I usually do.

The whole forum was videotaped and is 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 and got some good questions.  Of the forum speakers, I think I liked Michael Chemers’s presentation best—he’s a theater teacher and has had more training in connecting with an audience than most faculty, but the content was good also.  (I don’t think the Prezi added much to his presentation, though.)

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.


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