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A Project-based First Year Electrical and Computer Engineering Course: Sensor and Telemetry Systems for High-altitude Balloons

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

First-Year Issues in ECE Education

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

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Paper Authors


Jeremy N. Thomas DigiPen Institute of Technology

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Jeremy Thomas is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA. He has a BA in Physics from Bard College, and a MS in Physics and a Ph.D. in Geophysics both from the University of Washington. Jeremy is also currently an Affiliate Associate Professor in the Earth & Space Science Department at the University of Washington and a Research Scientist/Engineer at NorthWest Research Associates. Jeremy believes that curricula should be student-centered and embedded within an engaged, collaborative community who understand the broader, societal implications of their work. He aims to achieve this through the design of project-based and experiential curricula, including a recent redesign of the Computer Engineering program. He serves on several committees including the steering committee for the Faculty Senate. He also leads ABET accreditation and coordinates assessment for the Computer Engineering program.

Jeremy’s research is in space physics and electrical engineering, including atmospheric electricity, radio wave propagation, and digital signal processing. He receives external support through grants from agencies such as the US Geological Survey. He has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed publications, often with DigiPen students.

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Christopher Theriault DigiPen Institute of Technology

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Christopher Theriault earned his BS in Computer Engineering from DigigPen as the first graduate of the program in 2007. In addition to serving as a Lecturer for the program, he also serves as the Lab Manager for the ECE department, an opportunity which allows him to work with students to develop their projects. His own passions for engineering focus on the embedded system space, and his final student project consisting of a modular electronics platform was used by DigiPen to teach students in the Project Fun programs how to build simple robotics and electronics systems.

Prior to enrollment at DigiPen, he served as the Lead Scenario Designer for Stainless Steel Studios, working on Empire Earth and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. He continues to develop gaming projects in his spare time. Christopher is also a veteran, having served in the Army from 1991 - 1998 and participated in deployments to Europe and the Middle East.

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This paper documents an innovative, project-based 1st year course in electrical and computer engineering recently developed and implemented at [Institution name]. The primary objective of the course is to engage students in authentic engineering work early in their academic careers. Previous studies have shown that student engagement often leads to increased student retention rates in engineering programs. Moreover, including engineering work in the 1st year of a program often better prepares students for their subsequent and more advanced engineering courses.

The project currently implemented is sensor and telemetry systems for high-altitude balloons. Students are required to use the cricketsat design approach, which involves an electric circuit with an output that changes frequency based on properties of the atmosphere. The output of this sensor circuit is then used to amplitude modulate a 433 MHz carrier frequency for long distance RF communication. The first milestone of the project is to build and test a 555-timer based cricketsat that measures temperature with a thermistor following a prescribed design. Subsequently, the 555-timer is replaced by a PIC microcontroller (MCU) in the temperature sensing circuit. For the remainder of the project, students work in teams to design their own MCU-based sensor system to measure any property of the atmosphere that changes with altitude other than temperature (EM radiation, humidity, wind, pressures, etc.). Or instead, they can test an engineering design in the upper atmosphere. Students must make a proposal of their planned project to faculty and peers through an oral presentation and written documents. Once the design is approved, students are required to prototype their design on a breadboard. After testing the prototype, students design, populate, and test a printed circuit board. All of this work culminates with student sensors systems being launched on large weather balloons to about 30 km altitude. In the last few weeks of class, students analyze their data, present their work orally, and write final reports.

In addition to project work, this course introduces students to the basics of electrical & computer engineering fields. This is done by presenting overviews of diverse subjects such as, but not limited to: the history of electrical & computer engineering, the electronics development cycle, professional ethics, multidisciplinary team environments, and common development tools used in industry. Students are expected to apply this and knowledge from prerequisite and concurrent courses to completing their project.

In our paper, we describe the course in detail, including examples of student projects. Student outcomes related to both technical and soft skills are assessed using student surveys and project evaluation rubrics. We discuss these assessment results and highlight some successes and limitations of the experiential 1st year course.

Thomas, J. N., & Theriault, C. (2016, June), A Project-based First Year Electrical and Computer Engineering Course: Sensor and Telemetry Systems for High-altitude Balloons Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26410

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