June 22, 2008
June 22, 2008
June 25, 2008
Computers in Education
13.86.1 - 13.86.12
A Processor Design Project for a First Course in Computer Organization
Although many of today’s students are savvy computer users, paradoxically they often find computer design abstract and difficult to visualize. To make the material more tangible, we have developed a novel three part term project that requires students to develop and simulate their own processor. Students work in teams to devise and encode their own instruction set, design a datapath and microcontrol instructions to execute their instruction set, and simulate a model of their processor on a computer.
While similar CPU design projects have been offered at other institutions, this project is unique for three reasons. First, it gives students freedom to be creative by letting them design their own instruction sets, while constraining them to practical limits by requiring them to encode their instruction set and compile a small program for it. Second, by building a simulator for their processor, students can actually see their processor run a program. Third, the project needs no special hardware or software, and does not require the students to have any extensive background experience either in digital logic design or programming. It can consequently be offered in programs that do not have access to specialized equipment, and is suitable for students across diverse disciplines.
This project has been given to three classes of electrical engineering students and two classes of computer science students at different universities. Qualitative feedback was solicited from each class. Students have universally expressed that this project has made the subject matter feel more tangible to them and has greatly increased their enjoyment of the course. Students have tended to take advantage of the design freedom given to them by experimenting with unusual instruction sets, and in one case a team actually built their processor in hardware.
This paper describes the project itself in depth. It further discusses the student populations on which the project has been tried and the course contexts in which it was given. Finally, the paper looks at the student response to the project and the creativity of their submissions.
Many students have difficulty when encountering computer organization for the first time. This is due partly to the unfamiliarity of the material, but is also because computer architecture as a discipline is different from the fields that students encountered earlier. Unlike calculus, computer design has little underlying theoretical foundation. Instead, from its beginnings, computer design has always been a process of trial and error, with modern computers being designed the way they are because “it works best”, rather than any deeper theoretical reason. Students encountering the field for the first time need to understand not just how computers
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