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Making The Abstract Come Alive In An Introductory Electrodynamics Course

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Innovations in ECE Education II

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.850.1 - 15.850.9



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Paper Authors

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Deborah Mechtel United States Naval Academy

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Samara Firebaugh United States Naval Academy

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Making the Abstract Come Alive in an Introductory Electrodynamics Course


It has long been recognized in the engineering education community that practical laboratory exercises improve student understanding of abstract engineering concepts. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the United States Naval Academy (USNA), a four year undergraduate institution, meets this challenge by making laboratories an integral part of almost every course offered. Most courses include a weekly three hour lecture and a two hour laboratory. Recently a laboratory component was successfully added to the department’s introductory electrodynamics course. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate how students used the design of microwave microstrip circuits to improve their grasp of theoretical electrodynamics concepts. In addition, students were exposed to the practical aspect of design including limitations inherent in the simulation, design, fabrication and testing of high frequency circuits.

This paper will explain the details of laboratory exercises developed for the course and the supporting software, fabrication facility and test equipment. Additional laboratory exercises beyond the initial course offering that focus on optical propagation and antenna design will be described. Student and instructor assessment of the efficacy of the laboratory exercises will be discussed. The added laboratory’s influence on formal course evaluations and exam results will be presented.


Several approaches to assist student comprehension of abstract electrodynamics concepts have been proposed. These methods range from simulations using numerical packages, spread sheets and mathematical computational packages to hardware based experiments to facilitate student learning 1-4. This paper proposes a new addition to practical laboratory experiences that take students from their initial design, simulation, and fabrication to the final test of their project 5-6.

The electrodynamics course at the United States Naval Academy begins with transmission line theory, considered to be a useful pedagogical link between circuit analysis and the vector calculus required for describing free space propagation of electromagnetic waves. This approach has successfully helped students understand wave propagation concepts even before the course included a laboratory. The added laboratory provides an immediate illustration of transmission line topics using SONNET ™, a 3D Planar Electromagnetic software package for the design and simulation of microstrip components.( SONNET Lite™ is free online but a University Program makes the software available at a discount for colleges and universities.) After an introduction to clean room procedures and a photolithography process, students fabricate their designs and test them using a network analyzer. The final design task is a 5 GHz matching circuit. The exercises allow students the opportunity to follow their design from original concept to final test. The fabrication of student designs occurs during the vector calculus review

Mechtel, D., & Firebaugh, S. (2010, June), Making The Abstract Come Alive In An Introductory Electrodynamics Course Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16542

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