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.”