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Rethinking Non-major Circuits Pedagogy for Improved Motivation

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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

Electrical and Computer Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

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Paper Authors


Steven Bell Stanford University

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Steven graduated with a B.S. in Computer Engineering from Oklahoma Christian University in 2011, and is completing his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. His technical work is at the intersection of image processing, heterogeneous computing, and tools for embedded systems -- specifically, building an FPGA-based camera to enable high-performance imaging applications. He's also been heavily involved in undergraduate teaching, aiding and leading several innovations in Stanford's introductory circuits class. He will be joining the faculty of Tufts University in Fall 2018 as a lecturer in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department.

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Mark Horowitz Stanford University

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Mark Horowitz is the Yahoo! Founders Professor at Stanford University and was chair of the Electrical Engineering Department from 2008 to 2012. He co-founded Rambus, Inc. in 1990 and is a fellow of the IEEE and the ACM and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Science. Dr. Horowitz's research interests are quite broad and span using EE and CS analysis methods to problems in molecular biology to creating new design methodologies for analog and digital VLSI circuits.

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Student motivation is critical to learning and program retention in engineering, yet most introductory circuits classes present the material in an abstract manner that does little to inspire students. In Stanford's introductory circuits course, 58% of the students are not electrical engineering majors, and generally have little intrinsic motivation for learning circuits, since it is not their chosen field. Another 39% are undeclared, and using the course to get a feel for electrical engineering as a whole.

Our traditional linear circuits class covers Kirchhoff’s laws, nodal analysis, Thévenin/Norton, first-order response in the time domain for RL and RC circuits, op-amps, and phasors. Although this provides an important foundation for electrical engineers, it is not neither helpful nor interesting to non-majors who will not take further circuits classes. Moreover, it conveys a very narrow view of EE for those scouting out the major.

Four years ago, we completely redesigned our introductory circuits class to address these shortcomings. The new course is focused around a sequence of fun and practical lab projects, where students use what they are learning to build complete devices: a solar-powered cell phone charger, a trick box which turns itself off, an audio-controlled LED cube, and an electrocardiogram. The lectures explain the material just in time for each lab, beginning with linear circuits, but quickly detouring to explore diodes, solar cells, transistors, digital logic, and a bit of microcontroller programming. We return to linear circuits after introducing the frequency domain, and discuss filters and amplifiers.

We explicitly teach students techniques for building physical circuits and devices, and labs are graded for quality of design and construction in addition to electrical functionality. This broader range of theoretical topics and practical skills provides students (especially non-majors) with a more powerful toolbox for building useful circuits. Realistic applications are further emphasized through the homework, exams, and a series of in-class "breaking breaks".

There were several positive results after introducing the new course. We experienced a large demographic shift in the course, with students taking the class earlier in their career and before declaring a major. Student evaluations of the labs have been consistently positive, and a handful of students specifically cited the course as their reason for choosing to major in electrical engineering.

Bell, S., & Horowitz, M. (2018, June), Rethinking Non-major Circuits Pedagogy for Improved Motivation Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30936

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