22 September 2012

EE Prototyping 1

I'm working on a new project-based class this fall, and I wish I could get Jim's advice. I think he would love it...

Here's the background: Olin College has a popular course called "Introduction to Mechanical Prototyping":
Introduction to Mechanical Prototyping is an elective course with no prerequisites that can be taken by any interested Olin student. This course is all about learning to build things. Through a series of accelerated design projects, we will learn to design, build, and debug mechanical systems. We will cover multiple different fabrication approaches including sheet metal, 3D printing, molding rigid and compliant polymers, and long fiber-reinforced plastics. In addition to hands-on fabrication experience, students will learn and master the technical communication of mechanical design through design reports and professional engineering drawing practices.
Students also get hands-on experience with reverse engineering and modelling, as well as practical CAD and fabrication techniques. The resulting projects are really cool (see the web site for more).

This course has caused some long-simmering jealousy among the EE students. "We want something like that, except for us", with requisite pointing, was the demand. Several students asked me (and other faculty members), "Can you teach a class on EE prototyping next Spring?" Well, sure. But what does "EE prototyping" mean? Circuit design? Breadboarding? Soldering? Troubleshooting? Component selection? PCB design? PCB fabrication? PCB assembly? Value/cost engineering? Design for manufacturing?

Of course, a class on practical electrical engineering could be a really useful thing, but what topics should be included? What should be the mix of lecture time versus project time? Should the class cover analog, digital, RF, power, or all four? (Are there enough weeks in the semester for all four?) What are the best references? (Jim's application notes? Bob Pease's book? Howard Johnson's books? The free Analog Devices handbooks?)

To help solve the problem (and get some help), I've convened a seminar this Fall called "How to teach EE prototyping?" Eight students are going to help me brainstorm ideas, develop assignments, and generally design the course. I've promised them that the seminar is going to be equal parts round-table discussion, show-and-tell time, individual research, group activities, application-note club, rumors, innuendos, and lies. We have five goals:
  1. document the needs and wants for this class,
  2. manage expectations and preconceptions,
  3. achieve sufficient buy-in for the course,
  4. plan some of the course content and deliverables, and
  5. spend some time chatting about circuits.
My hope is to create a useful, practical, hands-on course that Jim would approve of. To set the mood, I started the students off with a hefty dose of App Note 47. The first reading assignment was
  • Mr. Murphy’s gallery of high-speed amplifier problems (pp. 7-15),
  • The tutorial section (pp. 15-32), and
  • Appendix F, Additional comments on breadboarding (pp. 98-112).
I'll let you know how it goes.

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