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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Q&A: Professor Eric Hansen on Re-Engineering ENGS 31

By Anna Fiorentino
October 2017 • CoolStuff

Sometimes even college courses need a fresh pair of eyes. Shortly after joining Dartmouth's engineering faculty last year, Professor Geoffrey Luke suggested applying for a redesign of ENGS 31: Digital Electronics through Dartmouth’s Gateway Initiative—an effort to personalize and enhance learning in large entry-level courses. He and Professor Eric Hansen, who’d already been experimenting with some new approaches, put their heads together and, last spring term, rolled out a new and improved ENGS 31.

A large lecture class with weekly labs and a culminating student project, ENGS 31 is Dartmouth’s first engineering course to get a makeover through the Gateway Initiative. So far, says Hansen, re-engineering the engineering course has been a success.

What are the benefits of redesigning ENGS 31?

One of the motivations for the redesign was to bring the design experience of the labs and projects into the daily routine. I think we all remember lecture classes where it was hard to stay engaged. Many faculty in different disciplines are looking for ways to leverage computer technology to break up a single long lecture and create more active engagement in the classroom. By putting much of the lecture material into pre-recorded videos for the students to watch before class, we are able to spend classroom time on active problem-solving exercises that reinforce the day’s lesson.

How did your first redesigned course go? 

Good digital design requires practice, and the more practice we can give students in the classroom, the better they will do in the labs and the projects. The ENGS 31 student projects produced this summer, post-redesign, seemed to me to be better designed and to function more successfully. Our lab director also says he saw greater confidence in the lab. I think we have at least passed the “first, do no harm” test.

Eric Hansen in the classroom
Professor Hansen circulates to answer questions while students build their projects.

What specifically about the course has changed?

We are proceeding with the ENGS 31 redesign incrementally by recording videos for about half the lectures, and continuing to create new recordings. These are concentrated, informal presentations of essential, fundamental material that run between six and 12 minutes long. Students are asked to watch the videos the night before class, along with completing assigned readings. They take a brief ungraded reading quiz online that gives me an idea of how well they understood the video and readings, and what residual questions they have.

In class, I go over the day’s material, clarifying the difficult points, and giving supplementary material as needed. I then introduce a set of design problems that apply the new material. Some students work on these problems in small groups, others prefer to work alone, but we encourage them to at least discuss their solutions with a neighbor. As they work on the problems, I am circulating around the class, along with student assistants called learning fellows, to ask and answer questions. We have been greatly assisted by the existence of a free online computer-aided design tool called EDA Playground that gives students a fast, simple way to try out design ideas. At the end of the class period, we come back together and I go over the solutions with the class.

What hands-on design exercises have been successful?

We’ve tried a variety of in-class exercises, and as one would expect, some have worked better than others. One that went very well was the design of a four-digit LED display. It turns out to save on wiring if, rather than lighting up all the digits at once, the digits are flashed one at a time. If you sweep through the digits fast enough, they appear to all be on at the same time—it’s the same trick on your eyes that makes cartoons or movies appear to be smooth. We used to do this as a lab exercise over the course of a week. This time, I began the class with a demonstration, gradually increasing the sweep speed until the digits appeared to all be on at once. After the demo, I turned the students loose to figure out how to make it happen on their own, using basic digital building blocks that we had designed in earlier classes. The room was abuzz for the rest of the period. Student came up with paper designs in about twenty minutes, and by the end of class many had made considerable progress toward a practical implementation with EDA Playground.

Who else at Thayer is using this approach to teaching?

From across the hall, I’d seen Peter Robbie run his design classes with a high degree of active participation by students. He gave me some good ideas for trying the same approach in ENGS 31. Other faculty have been bringing active design exercises into the classroom for some time—Vicki May, Solomon Diamond. Petra Bonfert-Taylor has done this in her sections of ENGS 20. Ulf Osterberg, who is visiting Thayer on sabbatical from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is interested in active learning strategies, particularly for large introductory electrical engineering courses. He and I are co-writing a textbook for ENGS 23, and have been talking about ways to bring these ideas into that class. It is a very different sort of course, involving a lot of physics and mathematics, but not much design. The challenge will be to devise good in-class exercises. Outside Thayer, classes in mathematics, biology, chemistry, and others are part of the Gateway Initiative or using active problem solving with learning fellows.

Tags: curriculum, design, faculty, STEM, students

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