Evaluation Boards Key To Updating Engineering And Technology Education

Sept. 19, 2006
College EE Labs: Are students learning the history of electronics?

As an adjunct college professor and college textbook author, I keep myself involved with engineering and technology education. I still teach occasionally and attend some of the conferences, visit colleges and talk to faculty. One thing that I have noticed is that laboratory instruction leaves something to be desired. I can say the same thing about the curriculum in some schools as well. To be nice about it, the instruction and curriculum are dated. A colleague of mine told me over a drink one day that he thought the colleges were teaching the history of electronics, rather than what is currently happening in the field. Frankly, I agree with that. The big and famous engineering schools are pretty much up to date because the faculty does advanced research and gets big fat grants, and companies lust after their grads. It follows that the curricula there tend to lean towards the latest developments. Beyond that, though, the state of the curriculum varies from school to school. The Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) does a good job of making sure curricula are adequate, but there is a lot of leeway. The curriculum is particularly atrocious in community colleges, which haven't kept up at all. It's appalling, really.

Are the Fundamentals Still "THE" Fundamentals?

In general, schools do a pretty good job of teaching the fundamentals. That's about all they have time for. It is pretty obvious that the fundamentals don't really change. What may not be so apparent is that the relevancy of some fundamentals changes with the advancement of technology. For example, I have always thought that there was still too much emphasis on bipolars and not enough on MOSFETs in courses and textbooks. MOSFETs make up over 90% of all chips and products today. You cannot avoid teaching bipolars, but it seems that the emphasis should shift, as it has in some schools (though not all). I guess it comes down to what the faculty gets comfortable with. It's hard to change faculty habits.

Furthermore, I cannot help but think that the courses should provide students with an inkling of the latest applications, equipment, chips, and so on, along with the fundamentals. That's where the labs usually come in.

Better Labs Are Needed

When is the last time you visited a college EE lab? In some of the larger engineering schools, labs have been eliminated completely in certain courses. I suppose that's okay, given that so much of engineering today, from math analysis and simulation to EDA, is done on the computer. But for some types of engineering courses, an EE doesn't get any real hands-on experience.

For those courses that have retained them, the labs are pretty dated. Some schools still use solderless breadboards to build circuits and experiment. That's okay too, but not so representative of how engineering is done today. Some of you may still breadboard, but it is harder than ever, given that most circuits and equipment today run at 100 MHz to well over 1 GHz, so those solderless breadboards do not work as well as they once did. On top of that, most parts are tiny surface-mounted things that are nearly impossible to breadboard with. Instead, you can buy those little PC boards like the Capital Advanced Technologies Surfboards on which you solder your tiny SMT parts. These boards have pins that then plug into the legacy breadboarding sockets.

Evaluation Boards to the Rescue

Giving it some thought, I have come to the conclusion that one of the all-time best college lab solutions is the advent of evaluation boards and reference designs. Most companies offer them to engineers as an aid in testing and evaluating chips and applications. These pre-built boards operate at rated speed or frequency as long as you use the correct cables and connectors. With evaluation boards, a student would get to try out the latest chips and technology; not some dated circuit using a 555 timer, 7400 TTL logic or 741 op amp. (I am not kidding about this. Some schools still use those parts, because they are cheap and have standard packages...with pins.)

There are two problems with this approach. First, most companies I have contacted about evaluation boards for use in schools won't sell them for that purpose. I have gotten a flat "no" numerous times from several of the big IC companies. The reason is that they build the boards for potential customers who hopefully will buy thousands or even millions of chips. So, volume is low. That's a stingy and short-sighted policy, if I do say so myself.

I encourage chip vendors to rethink this policy. You would be doing a real service to EE and technology education by helping to update labs and bring them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Furthermore, you would familiarize future EEs with your company and products, helping to create future customers. Sure, that is a long-term marketing strategy, but as many companies have discovered long before you, it works. I guess today, most companies look more at the short term, as in: What have you done for me lately, like yesterday? Why not make up a few extra evaluation boards and let the colleges know. They really will buy them, and professors will create lab exercises with them so students can learn the latest techniques...and eventually become customers.

The second problem with the evaluation board approach to updating EE labs is the test equipment issue. As I said earlier, if you have visited a college EE lab recently, you will probably notice that much of the equipment is from yesteryear. Test equipment is very expensive, and most colleges cannot afford full labs of the latest instruments. Sure, the grad students and the research labs have the latest stuff, but most of that equipment tends to be grant funded. So, even if you do decide to provide the evaluation boards, schools will need to solve the equipment problem. Assuming some incentive, such as the latest chips to play with on evaluation boards, I think this will happen over time.

So, companies: Reconsider your policy here. And if any of you professors are reading, give this some thought as well. If enough of you ask for development kits, we may get at least some. I cannot think of a faster, cheaper, easier way to do lab experiments and simultaneously update your course and curriculum automatically in the process.

I Need Evaluation Boards Right Now

I am currently writing a lab manual for my college textbook (Principles of Electronic Communications Systems, McGraw Hill, 3rd edition). I had truly wished to use some evaluation boards, but they just aren't available. So I am stuck with designing and demo-ing RF circuits and apps with low frequencies on breadboards. I am not happy with this approach, but what else is there? I am using a few simulations with Multisim and some National Instruments' LabVIEW. Their new Modulation Toolkit is a cool way to simulate and demo modulation, coding and other techniques, but it is not a hands-on lab.

All the lab manuals today have to face the doubly difficult problem of using inexpensive parts and test equipment that match the pathetic budgets of colleges while attempting to teach the latest technology. It is a compromise that most manuals writers have to live with. As a result, school labs will stay a bit dated. What a frustration.

If any of you have any great thoughts about this, let me know, and I will rehash this here later. The colleges will thank you, and so will I.

About the Author

Lou Frenzel | Technical Contributing Editor

Lou Frenzel is a Contributing Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles and the blog Communique and other online material on the wireless, networking, and communications sectors.  Lou interviews executives and engineers, attends conferences, and researches multiple areas. Lou has been writing in some capacity for ED since 2000.  

Lou has 25+ years experience in the electronics industry as an engineer and manager. He has held VP level positions with Heathkit, McGraw Hill, and has 9 years of college teaching experience. Lou holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland.  He is author of 28 books on computer and electronic subjects and lives in Bulverde, TX with his wife Joan. His website is www.loufrenzel.com

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