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Designing a Sustainable Large-scale Project-based Learning (PBL) Experience for Juniors in Electrical and Computer Engineering

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Division for Experimentation & Lab-oriented Studies Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Experimentation and Laboratory-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Stephen Schultz Brigham Young University

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Stephen M. Schultz has received B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, in 1992 and 1994, respectively. He received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, in 1999. He worked at Raytheon Missile Systems from 1999-2001. He has taught at Brigham Young University since 2002 and is currently a Full Professor. He has authored or coauthored over 100 publications and holds 10 patents. His research interests are in the area of optical fiber devices with an emphasis on optical fiber based sensors.

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Brad L. Hutchings Brigham Young University

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Brad L. Hutchings received the PhD degree in Computer Science from the University of Utah in 1992. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Brigham Young University. In 1993, Dr. Hutchings established the Laboratory for Reconfigurable Logic at BYU and currently serves as its head. His research interests are custom computing, embedded systems, FPGA architectures, CAD, and VLSI. He has published numerous papers on FPGA-related topics and is an inventor/co-inventor for 60+ patents.

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This evidence-based paper describes a large-scale, Project-Based Learning (PBL) curriculum. PBL curriculum increases student engagement and develops deeper understanding of the material. However, most PBL experiences are limited in scope, number of students, or both.

In order to gain the benefits of a PBL experience, the following criteria should be met. (1) The project needs to be authentic. This means that the project needs to be something that the ‘real-world’ would be interested in. (2) The students need to be actively engaged over an extended period of time. These criteria also require that the project be integral to the curriculum -- not peripheral. (3) The project needs to culminate in a physical realistic product. (4) The students need to work with others while still being required to understand all aspects of the project. (5) The project needs to have a high success rate.

This paper presents a PBL curriculum that can handle 200 students per year without requiring an undue commitment of faculty or teaching-assistant time. This PBL experience focuses specifically on the construction of a complex laser-tag system. Laser tag is used because it is engaging and because it requires students to build and to debug a large, complex system that consists of analog circuitry, complex digital signal processing (DSP) algorithms, sensors, and thousands of lines of C code. Students complete this project over the course of their junior year. During the fall semester, students implement laser-tag specific analog circuitry in an analog electronics course; they study Digital Signal Processing (DSP) theory and simulate DSP filters in Matlab; and, students study and practice principles of embedded programming with C in an embedded programming course. During winter semester students combine the knowledge and skills acquired during these fall-semester courses to create an advanced laser-tag game.

The paper presents the following strategies for attaining the benefits of the PBL curriculum while accommodating a large number of students and while keeping the faculty and teaching-assistant commitments to reasonable levels. (1) A top-level hardware/software specification of the laser-tag system is provided to the students. Students write software and implement analog hardware while following these carefully drafted specifications. (2) Students must test their software and hardware using both their own methods and with provided test software and hardware fixtures. All tests are strictly go/no-go tests, meaning that students may not proceed until the software/hardware passes the required tests. (3) How-to and demonstration videos are provided via a dedicated youTube channel. How-to videos demonstrate how to use compilation tools and various test equipment. Demonstration videos demonstrate pass-off criteria in unambiguous terms. (4) Students implement the laser-tag system by completing a series of scheduled milestones; each milestone consists of a specification, requirements and videos that demonstrate necessary skills and functionality. (5) The same PBL project is completed every year. Benefits accruing from this repetitive approach include: an available pool of experienced and qualified students who can serve as TAs, and continuous improvement of the content of the fall junior-year courses. Students who have taken the course in prior years understand the system and can help new students debug their implementations. In addition, if faculty or TAs detect a lack of student preparation in some topic during winter semester, the previous fall courses are updated and improved as necessary thereby providing a process of continuous improvement for the earlier fall courses.

The PBL experience described in this paper is in its fourth year and has achieved the desired goals of high success rate, reasonable faculty and TA loading, enthusiastic student engagement, and constantly improving curricula in fall courses.

Schultz, S., & Hutchings, B. L. (2018, June), Designing a Sustainable Large-scale Project-based Learning (PBL) Experience for Juniors in Electrical and Computer Engineering Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30278

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