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Frontiers of Electrical and Computer Engineering: an Introductory First Year Course

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Recruitment, Retention, and First-Year Programs in ECE

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.731.1 - 22.731.11



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Paper Authors


John A. Orr Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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John A. Orr is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and served as Provost of WPI from 2007 through June, 2010. Prior to this he held the position of Dean of Undergraduate Studies. He served as head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department from 1988 to 2003. Dr. Orr received the BS and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the MS degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. He began his professional career at Bell Laboratories and joined the faculty of WPI in 1977. At WPI Dr. Orr's research interests span several aspects of digital signal processing. Recent work is in the area of tracking and positioning systems, particularly indoors.
His other professional interest is in the area of engineering education where he has led the development of several innovative programs. Dr. Orr is a member of the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission. He is a Fellow of the IEEE and of the American Society for Engineering Education.

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Fred J. Looft Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Prof. Looft earned his B..S, M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan. After a brief period on industry, he joined the faculty of WPI where he is currently a professor and head of the ECE department. His interests include projects based education, curriculum development, international study abroad programs and mentoring, and computer/embedded systems engineering.

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Frontiers of Electrical and Computer Engineering: an Introductory First Year CourseSeveral motivations exist for exploration of new approaches to the introduction of first yearstudents to Electrical and Computer Engineering. One clear motivation is the decline in ECEenrollments and degrees over the recent past. BS degrees in EE, Computer Engineering, andECE declined from 21038 in 2004 to 15447 in 2009 [1]. Another aspect is the broad conclusionthat a new, more engaging and motivational approach is needed for the first year experience ofall college students, and particularly of engineering students.The course described here is offered to entering undergraduates in their first term. It isappropriate both for students who are uncertain regarding their academic major and for studentswho are confident in their choice of the ECE major. It complements a much more intenseacademic experience titled “Great Problems Seminars” that is offered to all incoming studentsregardless of major [2]. Experience has shown that introductory activities are much more likelyto be successful if they award grades and academic credit. This course carries 1.5 semestercredits, meets once per week, and includes weekly written assignments that are graded. Studentsregister for this activity in addition to their regular first year courses so it important to maintain areasonable expectation for out-of-class time, consistent with academic legitimacy. Each weeklymeeting welcomes a guest presenter, approximately half of whom come from outside theinstitution. In addition, three optional 3-hour labs are held on Saturday mornings. In these labsstudents construct simple electronic devices such as AM radios and heart rate monitors. Theselabs have been very well received by students. For many they represent the first time that theyhave seen individual electronic components or that they have used a soldering tool. It is vitallyimportant to have substantial one-on-one help available to assure positive outcomes. With thishelp, all the students are generally able to complete the construction and troubleshooting within athree-hour lab period and have a working device to take with them. The learning outcomes forthis course include: • Familiarity with the physical aspects of passive and active electronic components; • Understanding of circuit construction details, together with some understanding of the basics of circuit design and analysis; • Ability to relate a schematic diagram to a physical circuit; • Understanding of the relation of basic academic content (physics, math, etc.) to the professional activities of electrical and computer engineers; • Understanding of the range of career opportunities with a BS degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering (or in EE or Computer Engineering); • Understanding of what electrical and computer engineers actually do in their professional lives.Examples of the fourteen speakers in the current term include: An antenna/RF engineer from amajor defense contractor whose avocation lies in residential photovoltaic systems; an analogdesign engineer who played a major role in the design of a helium ion microscope; and acommunications engineer who has risen in management as he has participated in the internetrevolution with one of the major telecomm corporations. The presentations range from themoderately technical (such as the interdisciplinary aspect of the generation and focusing ofhelium ions) to the rather philosophical (such as the social impacts of the growing ubiquity andintensity of interpersonal connectivity).Sample assignment topics, each of which require written responses of approximately three pages,include: (1) the speed of light, with investigations of implications of its constancy (relativity);(2) the meaning and implication of “Moore’s Law” together with comments on the career ofGordon Moore; and (3) the results of brainstorming for a new iphone application, including basicperformance and business plan aspects. Students are also asked to comment in writing on eachweek’s presentation. These assignments are quite different from traditional ECE homework andstudents generally respond well to them. Following is a quotation from one response to thelecture on the design of a helium ion microscope: “This week’s speaker really got me excitedabout Electrical and Computer Engineering. Prior to the presentation I was unsure of what field Iwant to study, but now I am almost certain I am going to be an ECE major. The concept ofdesigning a helium microscope that can almost see individual atoms is simply incredible to me.”At the time of writing this abstract the fourth offering of the course is underway. The paper willreport longitudinal results on choice of major, persistence in the ECE major, and persistence inthe university over the course of four annual offerings. References 1. Engineering College Profiles, 2009, ASEE. 2. B.J. Savilonis, D. Spanagel, K. Wobbe. Engaging Students with Great Problems. Proceedings of the 2010 ASEE Annual Conference, Louisville, KY (June, 2010).

Orr, J. A., & Looft, F. J. (2011, June), Frontiers of Electrical and Computer Engineering: an Introductory First Year Course Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18012

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