Becoming a good engineer requires two types of practices - the "component skill," which is the knowledge in specific areas, and the "integration skill," which applies and integrates the component skill to address complex and realistic problems. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching conducted a five-year study of engineering education and reported the results in a book titled "Educating Engineer: Designing for the Future of the Field." It points out that one deficiency of the engineering curricula is that they mainly focus on the component skill, in which each subject is taught in isolation and without proper context, and do not adequately prepare students for the integration skill. The study recommends a "spiral model" to provide more effective learning experiences: "... the ideal learning trajectory is a spiral, with all components revisited at increasing levels of sophistication and interconnection. Learning in one area supports learning in another."
The grant work is motivated by the spiral model. We establish a lab framework that weaves through the entire computer engineering curriculum, from freshman engineering to senior capstone design. The framework connects and integrates the individual courses through three cohesive themes of lab experiments and projects. The themes are based on video, sound, and touch sensor. Each theme grows in two dimensions: component complexity and abstraction level. The component dimension represents the I/O devices and modules. Each theme involves an array of I/O components with increasing complexity. For example, the video theme starts with a tri-color LED (i.e., 1 pixel) and progresses to an 8-by-8 LED matrix (64 pixels), to a low-resolution TFT LCD module, and to a VGA display. The abstraction level follows the layered computer system model that includes gate, RTL (register transfer level), processor, OS, and application layers. The lab experiments and projects are constructed to illustrate and reinforce fundamental concepts in various courses. Their complexities and abstraction levels gradually grow with the progress of curriculum. These components are evolved into a set of IP (intellectual property) cores that can be incorporated into any FPGA-based computer system. The project are implemented in two institutions in parallel and its effectiveness is evaluated by an array of formative and summative assessment instrument to measure the outcomes in terms of student knowledge, student interest, student perception of curriculum, and instructor perception of curriculum.
The work has the following intellectual merits: (1). It addresses a serious deficiency - lack of integration skill - in engineering curriculum; (2). The work follows the guidelines for effective instructional practices; (3). Adoption is easy and flexible since the lab experiments and projects can be incorporated into any curriculum; (4). Only low-cost boards and parts are needed and they can be used repeatedly over the entire curriculum; (5). The completed work establishes an open and expandable framework for I/O subsystem development; (6). The project assesses the effectiveness of a recommended curriculum learning model.
The project overhauls the lab portion of the CE curriculum and replaces the isolated and scattered projects with a single cohesive theme-based framework. Because of the easy adoption path and low cost, the proposed lab work can be easily incorporated into any existing curriculum. A series of lecture note, tutorials, experiments, and projects are developed and made available to other institutions. The materials are also systematically introduced and incorporated into two “learning-by-doing” textbooks.
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