What’s Happening In EE Degree Labs

As some of you probably know, I occasionally cover engineering education topics in Electronic Design.  It is a favorite subject of mine and it does have a major impact on the industry.  Enrollments in EE programs have been dropping since 2002 when full time enrollment in electrical and computer engineering was 120K+.  It declined to a low of 72K+ in 2007 and has risen a bit the past three years to just over 75K.  It is getting harder and harder to interest high school students in EE despite the fact they are major users of all electronic technology.

Anyway, I went over to the University of Texas ECE department recently with some folks from National Instruments to observe a lab class.  The freshman EE class adopted NI’s new myDAQ device for use in the lab work.  (  The myDAQ is a small box that contains AD and DA converters and attaches to a laptop or PC by way of a USB port.  It provides two adjustable power supplies for lab experiments.  The best news is that the accompanying software includes a version on NI’s famous LabVIEW and a complete suite of virtual instruments like a DMM, scope, signal generator, and an FFT dynamic signal analyzer.  When combined with an external breadboarding socket, the student can do all sorts of experiments not only in the school lab but also in the dorm, at home or anywhere as the attached photo shows. 

The UT ECE302 course is the first EE course a student takes and this one is given in the first year to help retention.  Many schools still offer curricula that goes heavy on the math and science in the first two years making the first EE course come as late as the junior year.  This really discourages students and has been one of the major reasons for early drop outs.  To boost retention of the students they do get, UT created this course along with a hands-on lab using the myDAQ.  It seems to be stimulating serious interest.

The lab I observed was part of ECE302 basically a DC circuits course.  The lab includes the typical building and analyzing basic resistive circuits and using the multimeter to measure voltage, current and resistance.  They also build several virtual instruments (VIs) in LabVIEW to show it usefulness.  One of those experiments had the students simulate a three octave audio equalizer in LabVIEW where they demo’ed its effects on their iPod music.  The experiment I observed was one on op amps.  Yes, they put an op amp experiment in a first semester circuits course but it certainly was stimulating the students much more than those boring Ohm’s and Kirchhoff’s laws experiments.

Erik Luther, NI’s Senior Product Marketing Manager: myDAQ & Academic Textbooks, said that universities and colleges were rapidly adopting the myDAQ for labs not only because it took the equipment load off the college but also because the students could do much of their lab work outside of class sessions.  Some colleges are considering the myDAQ for implementing online EE courses.  Erik said he recently received an email that said this:

This morning I accomplished a feat never before attempted… working through a circuits lab at 60 mph along US-40 (my carpool colleague was driving, of course).   myDAQ to the rescue!!

– Professor Ed Doering, Rose Hulman University

A complete moving EE lab.  Cool…

I was encouraged by what I saw in the lab.  If more of the universities would modify and update their curricula to fit the real world as well as the expectations and desires of the students today, they would eventually recruit more and retain more students.  For now many schools are still locked into decades old programs that better fit the professor’s agenda than the student’s.  I thank National Instruments for making educational equipment like the myDAQ that is helping to facilitate that change.

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