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Improving Conceptual Understanding of Signals and Systems in Undergraduate Engineering Students Using Collaborative In-Class Laboratory Exercises

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Improvements in ECE Signals and Systems

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.715.1 - 24.715.14



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Paper Authors


Anusha Sathyanarayanan Rao Vanderbilt University

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Anusha Sathyanarayanan Rao is a post-doctoral research scholar in Psychology and Human Development at Peabody College in Vanderbilt University. Her research interests includes studying neural correlates of mathematics and reading development in children and applying neurocognitive theories to understand undergraduate student learning in engineering. She received her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Vanderbilt University in 2012, working on image processing of patient videos to quantify movement disorders.

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Jing Fan Vanderbilt University

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Jing Fan received the B.S. degree from Beijing Jiaotong University in 2012, Beijing, China. She is currently a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, EECS department. She worked as a teaching assistant for EECE 214 during 2013 summer semester, and designed the labs for the course with Professor Landman.

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Cynthia J. Brame Vanderbilt University

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Cynthia Brame pursed her undergraduate work at Centre College where she earned a BS degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She then pursued her doctoral work in pharmacology at Vanderbilt University under L. Jackson Roberts, III. She subsequently did post-doctoral research in biological mass spectrometry at the University of Virginia with Dr. Donald F. Hunt. After a ten year period as a biology faculty member Centenary College of Louisiana, Cynthia joined the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt as an assistant director, where she investigates methods to improve undergraduate learning in the STEM disciplines.

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Bennett Allan Landman Vanderbilt University

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Bennett Landman pursed his undergraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned BS and MEng degrees (EECS). After graduation, he studied the application of biophysical models of perception to digital image compression at a startup company and worked at a private neuroimaging laboratory. He pursued his doctoral work in BME at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine under Jerry Prince (ECE) and Susumu Mori (BME) where he was selected for a National Defense Science Engineering Graduate Research Fellowship. He did post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins faculty as an Assistant Research Professor in BME. In January 2009, he joined Vanderbilt as an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering where his research focuses on robust image content analysis, modern statistical methods, and imaging informatics to create, investigate, and apply big imaging data to improve patient care. He is an active member of the ISMRM, SPIE, and IEEE societies.

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Improving Conceptual Understanding of Signals and Systems in Undergraduate Engineering Students Using Collaborative In-Class Laboratory ExercisesCollaborative in-class MATLAB based laboratory exercises were introduced into the ‘Signalsand Systems’ course curriculum in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program atVanderbilt University in Fall 2013. In addition to traditional lecturing and problem solvingtechniques from our previous curriculum, these MATLAB based labs were designed to motivatedeeper learning by designing, implementing and analyzing practical applications of signals andsystems. This one year study, approved by the Vanderbilt Institutional Review Board, aims toquantify the impact of these labs on students’ conceptual understanding and retention of thecourse material.Signals and Systems is an introductory course in the analysis of continuous and discrete-timesignals and systems. Despite satisfying pre-requisites of electric circuits, calculus, and basicprogramming, students find it challenging to integrate these components to conceptualize signalsand system theories. Following general signals and systems lab curricula [1, 2, 3, 4, 5], threecollaborative in-class labs were developed based on the practical application of music synthesisand processing by modeling guitar notes to generate music as signals, and adding various soundeffects designed as systems.A pre-lab module introduces key concepts and resources for the lab, while the in-class modulecomprises of MATLAB exercises to implement and test these concepts. Students record theirinterpretations and problems encountered in a technical lab report that contributes to their finalgrade. Since the labs do not test conceptual understanding directly, we are using the Signals andSystems Concept Inventory (SSCI) [6], to directly measure students’ conceptual understandingof continuous and discrete time signals and systems [7, 8, 9]. Individual lab surveys and smallgroup interviews providing student feedback will complement the SSCI scores.The new curriculum was implemented in Fall 2013 in EECE 214 ‘Signals and Systems’ course atVanderbilt University. Two groups of students will participate in this study in the Fall 2013 andSpring 2014 semesters – students in the new curriculum (NC) and students who took EECE 214prior to Fall 2013 in the old curriculum (OC). Pre and post-course SSCI scores will be obtainedfrom the NC group. Post-course scores will also be obtained from Fall NC group in the Springsemester to test retention. Post-course scores will be obtained from the OC group at thebeginning of the semesters. A battery of within group and between group statistical comparisonsof these SSCI scores will be performed to determine (a) gain in conceptual understanding in theNC group, (b) retention of concepts in the NC and OC groups and, (c) benefits of NC over OC.Currently, pre-course scores in the NC group and post-course scores in OC group have beenobtained. We propose to have the data collection and analysis for the Fall semester completedwith results before the final submission of our paper.The findings from our study not only have the potential to impact the engineering curriculum ofVanderbilt University, but also reinforce the significance of practical laboratory exercisesemphasized by previous studies [10, 11], thereby contributing to the development of goodeducational practices. References[1][2][3][4][5][6] Wage, Kathleen E., et al. "The signals and systems concept inventory."Education, IEEETransactions on 48.3 (2005): 448-461.[7] Streveler, Ruth A., et al. "Learning conceptual knowledge in the engineering sciences:Overview and future research directions." Journal of Engineering Education 97.3 (2008): 279-294.Yoder, Mark A., and Bruce A. Black. "Work in progress: A study of graphical vs. textualprogramming for DSP." Frontiers in Education Conference, 36th Annual. IEEE, 2006.[8] Nelson, Jill K. "Work in progress: Project-based assignments for a graduate-level digitalsignal processing course." Frontiers in Education Conference, 36th Annual. IEEE, 2006.[9] Gassert, John D., et al. "Cross-Disciplinary Biomedical Engineering Laboratories andAssessment of their Impact on Student Learning." American Society for Engineering Education.American Society for Engineering Education, 2011.[10] [11] Lee, Edward A. "Designing a relevant lab for introductory signals and systems."Proc. ofthe First Signal Processing Education Workshop. 2000.

Sathyanarayanan Rao, A., & Fan, J., & Brame, C. J., & Landman, B. A. (2014, June), Improving Conceptual Understanding of Signals and Systems in Undergraduate Engineering Students Using Collaborative In-Class Laboratory Exercises Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20607

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