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Introducing the Open Projects Lab

The most successful engineers are driven by passion. This passion can be fueled by an engineer’s ability to pursue projects of his or her own choosing. Successful senior design projects and award-winning inventions make it clear that, given the chance to choose their own projects, ECE ILLINOIS students can achieve remarkable things.

In order to facilitate this student ingenuity, ECE ILLINOIS is introducing a new lab in the ECE Building: the Open Projects Lab.

“The Open Projects Lab will be an area where students can run their own projects that are not related to classes,” said ECE Professor Erhan Kudeki, who is coordinating with ECE student groups to determine how the lab will operate.

The lab will meet the needs of both short-term and long-term projects by having two sections. In the walk-in section, ECE students can stop by and use workstations with computers and measurement instruments. Students with longer-term projects can write proposals to use the long-term space, which a student jury will review.

Kudeki noted that since the lab isn’t tied to a specific course, students have the ability to pursue more risky and ambitious projects. They have access to the lab without having to worry about finishing their project by a specific deadline.

A rendering of the Open Projects Lab.

A rendering of the Open Projects Lab.

The lab will also serve as an ideal space for student events. Large-scale events and competitions, like ECE PULSE and HackIllinois, will use the lab as a space for students to prepare their projects. ECE student groups will be able to use the space to organize more frequent activities.

The Open Projects Lab will complement ECE’s other labs in their aims to encourage student creativity. The Srivastava Senior Design Lab provides a space for senior projects, and the final design challenge in the ECE 110 Lab is allowing for more student creativity. The Open Projects Lab takes this one step further, providing a space for independent and self-driven projects.

Kudeki said that he anticipates all sorts of projects being pursued in the open lab.

“This is a creative play space, and we’re hoping for an explosion of creativity,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Interested in supporting this unique space and the students who will innovate here? Donors can make a difference with any sized gift. Opportunities ranging from in-kind gifts, to support for student projects, to room naming opportunities still exist. Contact Steve George, ECE senior director of advancement, at steveg@illinois.edu or (217) 244-8023 to learn more.

$1 million gift makes Srivastava Senior Design Lab possible

All seniors in electrical engineering—the nanotechnologists and power system specialists alike—share at least one final course: Senior Design (ECE 445)—the class where the whole engineering design process, from problem identification to prototype construction and testing, comes together.

It’s a simulation of professional engineering design. Working in teams of two or three, recent course graduates have developed, among other things, a calibration system for railway heat sensors and a footprint-imaging device for identifying and tracking river otters.

Such work necessitates ample laboratory space and, with over 100 students enrolled most semesters, demands for that space are significant. In the ECE Building this fall, the department will unveil a new laboratory dedicated to the course: the Srivastava Senior Design Lab. It is named in honor of alumnus Sanjay Srivastava (MSEE ‘87), who generously supported the building project, and the senior-design space in particular, with a gift of $1 million. The laboratory will provide more workspace than the existing room in the Digital Computing Laboratory.

Sanjay Srivastava (MSEE '87)

Sanjay Srivastava (MSEE ’87)

Srivastava is the chairman of SKS Capital, an investment group based in Los Altos Hills, California, which supports early-stage ventures in storage, semiconductors, and education. He is also the chairman and CEO of Vocareum, a new endeavor, aimed at providing online resources to engineers transitioning into the workforce from school or from other careers.

As a graduate student at Illinois, Srivastava studied computer vision with Professor Narendra Ahuja, and the collaborative workspace available to him had a profound impact, facilitating his own transition from academia to industry.

“I discovered on my own pace what I really enjoyed doing, and having access to that space was critical,” he said. His support of the senior design laboratory was thus motivated by its experiential emphasis. “It’s trying to provide the last-mile service to the students: you know, the last mile between learning and experience—learning and the job.”

The same last-mile support undergirds much of Srivastava’s work. In addition to SKS Capital and Vocareum, Srivastava sits on the board for the Foundation for Excellence, a nonprofit that provides scholarships each year for about 2,000 college students in India who come from backgrounds of particular financial need.

Vocareum itself is also a sort of last-mile company, which Srivastava likened to an online senior design laboratory. The goal is to provide industry-sponsored projects to aspiring engineers, along with corresponding resources and community-sourced feedback and mentoring. “The hope is that you can present the project as evidence to the employer of your experience,” Srivastava said.

In the senior design lab, students spend the first three or four weeks in lecture, during which faculty or industry experts present ideas for projects—similar to those that Vocareum will provide—and then the rest of the semester is spent working in the lab space. Teams will be able to access the space outside of class hours.

“Engineering is really about accomplishing fairly ambitious, technical, big things. Even if they’re small in size, they’re intellectually big things,” said Associate Professor Paul Scott Carney, the course director. In addition to providing a sort of simulation of the industrial sector, the goal of the course is to introduce students to good engineering procedures, so that ambitious projects have successful outcomes.

A portion of Srivastava’s gift will be used to establish the first-ever cash prize for the senior design course. Already, non-monetary awards are given to the students following their final presentations. Past top projects include a wireless hand signal transceiver for covert military communication (Instructor’s Award in 2011) and a Bluetooth stereo network (Most Marketable Award in 2012).

Each semester, as a new student cohort enters the Srivastava Senior Design Lab, ideas like these will blossom. Engineering problems will be identified, novel solutions chosen, the parts compiled, the prototype assembled. And in the process, another engineering vanguard—much like Srivastava himself—will undoubtedly be launched.

For more information, please see the full story on the ECE ILLINOIS website.

Rewiring the ECE 110 lab

The fundamentals of electrical and computer engineering, from simple circuit elements to complex systems, are taught in a class required of all ECE graduates: ECE 110, Introduction to Electronics.

During the lecture portion of the class, students are taught a working knowledge of analog circuits. But in the lab, students put those concepts into practice. The lab, previously housed in Everitt Lab 146, has served as the department’s hands-on introduction to electrical and computer engineering for decades. This fall, the lab will find a new home in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building.

Visitors using the ECE Building’s main east entrance on the will step into the main lobby. Through the glass on the lobby’s north side, they’ll see freshman students hard at work in the new ECE 110 Lab, twice the size as the previous lab space in Everitt. The students will prepare their own unique projects for the class’s final design challenge.

“To get the students more engaged in the design process, we are making the design challenge less scripted,” said Patricia Franke, the ECE 110 lab director. In the past, the final design challenge was the same for all students: create a robotic car that follows a path full of twists and turns. In recent years, the lab has been pushing for more creativity from students, who are driven by their own pursuits and interests in their final designs.

The new ECE 110 lab space in the ECE Building.

The new ECE 110 lab space in the ECE Building.

These developments are coming into fruition as the lab enters the ECE Building. The new lab space has adjoining rooms that will be used for demonstrations, office hours, extra-curricular projects, and parts storage. This new storage capacity allows for new equipment for students to use in their designs.

Students will now use a kit of parts designed for flexibility in the choice of their final project goals. The kit includes many different types of sensors, motors, and drive circuitry, as well as a single-board microcontroller, allowing students to program more advanced projects.

“We want each lab period to consist of some pre-written procedures to support the lecture and their march towards the final design,” Frank said. “But we also want unstructured experimentation. So we’re instituting the policy that students have to stay for the whole three scheduled hours.”

Learning and experimentation can continue at home, since each student will have his or her own kit.

“We’re trying to encourage them to play,” she said.

Already, in the experimental lab groups in which Franke has introduced the more open final challenge, students have designed impressive projects. One semester, a lab group built two vehicles that played laser tag. In another semester, a group of students built a car that drew a black line on a white piece of paper, and another car that followed that line.

With these changes, Franke hopes to encourage the students’ intrinsic motivations to design and create.

“Our aim is to give them a good foundation,” Franke said. “And a big part of that is that they enjoy the lab.”

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