Electronic Design

Educational Software Can Help New Engineers Lacking The Basics

It's a refrain you hear over and over from engineering managers: New recruits fresh out of university-level programs just aren't up to snuff in some electronic engineering concepts that are prerequisites to success in the system-design realm. This is particularly true in the analog area. Analog and mixed-signal design is not seen as glamorous enough by those who would rather set the digital world on fire immediately upon entering the workforce. It also is downright difficult to learn and to do well without a lot of experience.

But analog smarts are not the only area in which engineering students might need help. Considering that virtually all engineering students are highly computer literate, software products that endeavor to teach engineering topics present a reasonable ap-proach for getting their attention. EDA vendors have identified the opportunity to get their software into students' hands—not a bad idea if you want to build a little brand loyalty down the road—and are launching a wave of education-oriented packages to help fill the knowledge gap.

Recently, I have had the occasion to try a couple of new entries into the engineering educational software market. One, the Verilog Computer-Based Training Course (Verilog CBT), is a CD-ROM intended for engineering students and entry-level designers who need a push into programmable-logic device (PLD) design with hardware-description languages (HDLs).

Created in partnership with Mentor Graphics, the CD contains special editions of the ModelSim simulator and LeonardoSpectrum PLD synthesis tool. Fledgling PLD designers can start from the basic level as they learn how to create textual representations of digital designs. An interactive training environment takes students through quizzes, projects, language reference manuals, software manuals, and tutorials. Also included is the Web edition of Altera's Quartus II design software for advanced PLD and system-on-a-chip designs.

The program is divided into seven streams, or segments, intended to challenge all levels of HDL designers. The streams cover the role of HDLs in design, an overview of Verilog, examples of Verilog use, language constructs, synthesizable coding, language coding, and the use of Verilog-based tools.

So far, I have found the package to be a snap to install and use. Although some of the animation is a little cutesy, the meat is still there. With careful study, one could come away from this interactive course with a good head start toward a working knowledge of PLD design in Verilog. The package lists for about $200 and is available from numerous online retailers.

While students should certainly be learning how to design, build, test, and analyze circuitry in a real-world, hands-on fashion, they also need hands-on experience with EDA tools. The Verilog CBT will provide some of that, as will a new release from Electronics Workbench titled StudentSuite. By combining the Multisim circuit simulator and Ultiboard pc-board layout package, the suite offers a virtual laboratory that lets students move through the entire process of circuit design, simulation, analysis, and pc-board layout.

I installed StudentSuite and have found it fun to use (if not a bit distracting, as I find myself playing with it when I should be, ahem, doing other things). It's available from Prentice Hall (www.prenhall.com) for under $100.

I'd be very interested in readers' insights into the state of engineering curricula at universities today. Are the schools teaching what they should? Please take a minute and e-mail your comments to me.

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