Students enjoy more flexibility in revamped ECE 110

5/24/2017 Mike Koon, Engineering at Illinois

A College of Engineering SIIP grant enabled faculty to promote consistency across sections while encouraging students to develop their own projects.

Written by Mike Koon, Engineering at Illinois

Even as freshmen, students in electrical engineering are designing autonomous vehicles, auto-loading cross bows, and music synthesizers. Much of the credit goes to a collaborative effort of professors and teaching assistants and a grant from the College of Engineering’s Strategic Instructional Innovations Program (SIIP).

A student demonstrates a project in the Texas Instruments Electronics Design Lab.
A student demonstrates a project in the Texas Instruments Electronics Design Lab.
For the past three years, this team has led the revamped effort of ECE 110, Introduction to Electronics, a course that each semester serves nearly 500 students, both in ECE and in other disciplines of engineering. The course is a requirement for students in Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering because of the design aspect.

In Introduction to Electronics, a traditional starting point for electrical engineering majors, students are introduced to history and scientific breakthroughs in mathematical modeling and semiconductor materials, diodes, bipolar junction transistors (BJTs), metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs), and basic internal circuitry of computers. The opportunity to overhaul Introduction to Electronics came at the same time that some of the material was being transferred to another freshman level course, ECE 120, Introduction to Computing.

The class has four different sections of lectures and 16 different labs. Furthermore, the student population presents a large variance in previous exposure to electronics. The variation in teaching methods coupled with the diversity in student backgrounds has made it both a challenge to provide consistency to every student and to simultaneously provide the means for experienced students to explore more deeply. 

Christopher Schmitz
Christopher Schmitz
“In the past instructors were allowed to deviate from each other as much as they wanted,” said Christopher Schmitz, a senior lecturer and undergraduate advisor in ECE serving as a co-principal investigator on the project. “If two instructors deviated with each other too much it would reduce the fairness of exam content.”

The SIIP team set up goals for the improvement of this foundation course, which included reducing “content drift,” defining explicit learning objectives for the course which would be the basis for the exams, and developing common lecture material that everyone was able to use.

“At the beginning we had several questions. Where should we start?” Schmitz said. “There are all kinds of best practices. Our challenge was to determine which ones fit what we were trying to do and also fit personal styles of teaching. We were blessed to have a lot of good people on the project who were proactive in learning and implementing those good practices and sincerely interested in what the goals were. The team aspect was huge in getting everything moving.”

The most noticeable initial difference was a facelift of the course notes to be more consistent and the development of a more comprehensive website.

“The feedback was positive,” Schmitz said. “They liked the readability and conciseness of the online textbook and the personal touch of the diagrams, which were mostly hand drawn. We still provided additional material for those who wanted to learn more, but it was obvious when it wasn’t mission critical for doing well in the course.”

One of the issues of the past, Schmitz reports, was that each instructor contributed problems to exams and would often have to pull all-nighters to grade them because they had to determine how much partial credit to give on each question. He notes the effort that previously went into grading the exams now goes into writing good questions and making sure they align with course objectives that are distributed to the class at the beginning of the semester. The exams migrated into short numeric-answer problems mixed with multiple choice questions where student get multiple opportunities to answer with reduced credit for each attempt. Exams are now auto-graded.

In addition to the lectures, the labs were restructured as well and more closely monitored to make sure they weren’t too far ahead or behind what was being presented in the lectures. Instead of having procedures that would last the entire three-hour lab period, time would be set aside at the end so that each student could work on a project of his/her choosing. The students carry a kit aiding creativity and the potential to make something that closer fits their passions.

“They can use the final 15-45 minutes of each lab session to explore with more autonomy in selection,” Schmitz said. “As they learn more about the core procedures each week, more of these modules open up to them. We are finding self-motivation is growing because of the choice in content and many more are becoming involved in projects outside of the course.”

Before the SIIP overhaul, most of the final projects were car-based because that was the main aspect of the lab. Because of the expanded options in the lab, project now run the gamut of possibility.

“The design aspect has gone up quite a bit,” Schmitz added. “Design was there before, but now the freedom that the students have been offered and the excitement that comes from the having that kind of freedom has been an impulse for new applications.”

In addition, a few students have been able to work on an honors project, which runs parallel to the class.

“At the start of the semester, those students are already brainstorming about what they want to build even before many of them have been exposed to the basic concepts of circuits,” Schmitz said.

The team has also developed a merit section geared toward students not well represented in this discipline.  They work in small groups to build community and confidence. Research has shown merit sections to improve student retention.
The result of the three-year project has energized both faculty and students.

“We have recently recruited two faculty professors to teach Introduction to Electronics for the first time,” Schmitz said. “Most professors are not usually too excited about teaching a freshman level course with 500 students, but their response has been extremely positive. They were able to step in and teach because all the pieces, including a common set of notes and shared infrastructure, were already there.

“We are finding that as students come back afterwards and tell us about their experience, I rarely hear anything negative,” he added. “They are excited they can do open-ended projects and they get resources for an honors project. They tell us they never expected these opportunities as a freshman.”

This story first appeared on the Engineering at Illinois site.

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This story was published May 24, 2017.