Portable Labs Ignite Hands-On Approach to EE Education

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How inexpensive portable lab equipment is revolutionizing EE education.

If you had any laboratory education at all in your BSEE degree program, you probably remember going to a lab at a fixed time and doing a project or experiment on what was probably dated equipment.  That approach still goes on in many colleges but there are signs that this is changing.  Labs take up valuable space, are expensive and difficult to keep up to date.  Universities spurn laboratories because of this but that may be a good thing for today’s students who are less in tune with the lab practices of old.

One new approach is to put the lab directly into the student’s hands.  A good example of this is the Analog Discovery package made by Digilent.  It is a small black box that connects to a student laptop via a USB cable.  Inside is the hardware to implement some basic virtual instruments like a digital multimeter (DMM) and an oscilloscope.  Software on the laptop rounds out the complete virtual instrument package.  The black box also contains plus and minus power supplies, a function generator and some digital I/O.  The student now has a full laboratory he or she can carry around and conduct lab exercises almost anywhere.

Completing this picture is a standard breadboarding socket for building experimental circuits.  The Digilent Discovery comes with a kit of basic parts like resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors and a full set of modern linear ICs from Analog Devices.  A set of lab experiments has the student build and test basic circuits anytime and anywhere.  The whole works fits in the average student backpack and costs less than most standard textbooks.

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) made a video showing this approach that they have successfully adopted for some courses.  The video features Bob Bowman a longtime faculty member at RIT and he explains the value of this method to both the student and the college.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nHYA79g0bU

I have personally used the Discovery package and the accompanying software Waveforms.  It is great for building basic circuits, linear circuits and basic digital circuits.  A complete desktop lab. 

Another device similar to the Discovery unit is National Instruments’ myDAQ package.  Again, a small box that hooks up to a laptop via USB and uses NI’s LabVIEW software with virtual instruments.  Attach a breadboarding socket and start building and testing circuits.  NI recently announced a line of miniSystems accessory boards that provide experiments at a higher systems level.  Check out my previous articles on this.

http://electronicdesign.com/boards/portable-instrumentation-device-performs-college-lab-experiments-anywhere

http://electronicdesign.com/boards/ni-minisystems-teach-more-systems-concepts

Incidentally, Digilent was recently acquired by National Instruments.  Both companies are fully committed to engineering education so I suspect you can see some continuous improvements in these products and hopefully some additional innovations in lab education.

I see this portable approach catching on at many colleges especially for the basic EE courses.  It has to be the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to give EE students some real world hands-on experiments with real components.  It is at least a relief from the pervasive software and simulation instruction that seems to dominate EE programs today.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Mar 21, 2013

Nice idea. Maybe ACC and Texas State could use this idea to add early curriculum stuff to the Round Rock campuses so folks could take classes at night without having to go to south Austin or San Marcos. This was definitely an issue at Delaware Tech where our labs were not antique, but not very up to date either.

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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