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2016 November 19

Electronics course over-enrolled

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:35
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Course registration has been going on for next quarter, and my Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course has more students wanting (or needing) to take it than we had planned for.  The largest previous class was last spring, with 45 students, so I had planned for a modest increase to 66 students this year (3 lab sections of 22 students each).  That filled up before the first round of registration was over, so I squeezed in 6 more students making room for 72 students (3 lab sections of 24 students each).  Those slots are now full and there are 12 students on the waiting list.  I can’t increase the lab sections any more (24 students in the lab is already crowded as there are only 12 benches).

I can’t add another lab section for several reasons:

  • The lab space is shared with another class that has 86 students enrolled (with a capacity of 120) and it took a while to negotiate even the 6 weekly slots for my 3 sections.
  • My lecture hall only seats 75.  Somewhat surprisingly, there are a couple of larger halls available in the MWF 2:40-3:45 time slot, though only one is a reasonable walking distance from my office (particularly given the amount of stuff I often carry to lectures for demos).  (If I’d been looking for a T Th slot, it would have been impossible at most times, as all larger halls are already scheduled.)
  • I’m already scheduled for classes, meetings, labs, or office hours 25 hours a week, not counting my Academic Senate committee or my undergrad directors’ meetings (which haven’t been scheduled yet).  I’ll probably be in the instructional lab TTh 1pm–7:30pm, making my lab hours be 13 hours a week.  (Students will have 190 minutes a week of lab, but there are three back-to-back sections, plus I need to set up and clean up.)
  • I don’t have a TA, so I’ll be doing all my own grading (8 problem sets and 5 large design reports for this course, and 2-3 design reports for the freshman design seminar). I will be able to hire undergraduate group tutors to help me answer questions in the lab—having two people in the lab to ask questions of makes a big difference.  I think I’ve got three tutors (one per section) lined up, but the official hiring doesn’t happen until some time in December.

The problem comes from a combination of factors:

  • requiring this electronics course of all bioengineering students (to reduce the pressure on the EE circuits course)
  • growing enrollment in bioengineering
  • growing enrollment at UCSC generally, without corresponding growth in instructional resources (instructional labs, classrooms, TAships, … )
  • my deliberately not  taking up a TAship for this course in previous years, to free up scarce teaching resources for more junior colleagues (though I fear that some of these resources have been squandered on courses taught by other senior faculty who didn’t really need TAs for their classes that were small or had only modest grading loads).

It looks like next year we’ll have to plan around 100 students:  the 84 students that seem to be the steady-state demand, plus 12 left over from this year, plus a tiny amount (probably too little) for growth.  That means that I’ll need 5 lab sections of 20 next year (or, with squeezing, 4 sections of 24).  I don’t think that I’ll be able to do all the grading myself for that large a class, particularly not with supervising that many labs.  So I’ll probably need a TA, who will have to come from another department, as none of the grad students in our department have electronics expertise. I might be able to get by with undergraduate group tutors and graders (though I’ll need enough hours from them that this might run into union limits—I believe the TA union considers it improper to have more than 20 hours a week of undergrad assistance).

 

2015 December 26

Syllabi for splitting Applied Electronics into two courses

In order to split the Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course into two courses, as I suggested in Considering splitting Applied Electronics course, I need to fill out course approval forms to get the courses approved by the Committee on Educational Policy.  They’ve changed the forms this year, so that there are now three documents needed:

If I were requesting a general-education code for the course, I would also have to fill out one of the thirteen general-education forms (corresponding to the 13 possible general-education codes for a course at UCSC), listed at the bottom of the supplemental sheet.

The supplemental sheet was simplified this year, by pushing all the general-education forms out to separate forms, but the requirement for a course syllabus is new.  Basically, the supplemental sheet asks more or less the same questions as before, rephrased to “where on the course syllabus …?”  The “learning outcomes” question is new, as it reflects a relatively new bureaucratic approach to curriculum design.  The learning outcomes make a lot more sense at the course level than at the degree level, where the administration has been pushing for them.

Here are my first more-or-less complete drafts of my sample syllabi for the split course:

The split course is a pair of 4-credit courses, representing a total time of  about 250 hours (240–263 hours), 140 of which are contact hours (3.5 hours of lecture and 3.5 hours of lab a week).  I’m thinking in terms of MWF lectures (70 minutes each) and TTh labs (105 minutes each).  That should be easier to schedule than the 7-unit BME 101/L these courses will replace, which takes about 220 hours (210–232 hours), 95 of which are contact hours (3.5 hours of lecture and 6 hours of lab a week). The increased contact hours should result in students learning more, as many of our students are not very efficient at learning on their own.

One thing I’ll have to decide is whether to require all bioengineering majors to take both courses, or whether BME 51A is enough for the biomolecular concentration. For the bioelectronics and assistive technology: motor concentrations, both parts are needed both for the content and for the lab experience.  But for the biomolecular and assistive technology: cognitive/perceptual concentrations, the courses are mainly there to teach engineering design practices.  The assistive technology: cognitive/perceptual concentration relies on software courses for design content, and so BME 51A is probably enough for them, but there are very few design courses for the biomolecular concentration, as biomolecular lab work is very slow, and a full-year capstone sequence is barely enough for one iteration of one prototype.

2015 December 8

Sabbatical plans for 2016–17

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:04
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In Considering splitting Applied Electronics course, I suggested that I would split the Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course into two courses next year, to make a more sane teaching/learning schedule, and said “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).”

I’ve investigated this possibility some more, consulting with my department chair and department manager, along with other faculty in my department.  My plan is now to take sabbatical at 2/3 pay for Fall quarter next year and teach the Applied Electronics courses the other two quarters (plus the freshman design seminar one of the two quarters). The department would have to cover the grad courses I currently teach, but those are relatively easy to transition to other faculty, as about half the department has the requisite expertise.  There is even a lecturer who has taught the main course before (the last time I was on sabbatical), and the other half course is fairly easy to teach, as it can be adapted to interests of whoever is teaching it.

Initially I was worried that my taking sabbatical would hurt the department financially, because the department does not get any funding for replacing people on sabbatical leave.  But it turns out that if I take only partial pay while on sabbatical, the department gets the remaining salary, so if I take sabbatical at 2/3 pay for a quarter, the department gets 1/9 of my 9-month salary that it can spend on lecturers or TAs.  Because I’m paid more than a lecturer, that covers 1.5–2 courses of lecturer pay, which is about what I’m not teaching. So I won’t be putting the department in a financial bind by doing this.

I don’t think that I’ll miss the 1/9th of my salary, since I no longer am saving for my son’s college education, and my retirement funds have enough money in them for my planned retirement date.  If I do decide I need more money, I can teach in summer school, where each course would earn me 1/9th of my salary (or so I’ve been told).

My plans for next fall are mainly focused on finishing the textbook, which will probably include splitting it into two volumes, to correspond to the two halves of the course.  Because the course is also moving from upper division to lower division, and the prerequisites are being reduced, I’ll need to increase somewhat the background material, and rewrite it from “you should already know these things” to “background to learn very quickly”. I still don’t know whether I’ll try to get a traditional publisher to pick up the book or just continue to self-publish through Leanpub.  I’ll probably do some more investigation of that question over the summer and fall.

Over the next 5 years, I want to find some lecturers  (or faculty in other departments) who want to teach the Applied Electronics course, so that I can retire without the course disappearing.  It would make sense for the course to be renumbered to be in a different department (like Electrical Engineering or Computer Engineering), if instructors were provided by those departments.

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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