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Transforming The Microprocessor Class: Expanding Learning Objectives With Soft Core Processors

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Digital and Embedded System Design

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1504.1 - 12.1504.15



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Paper Authors


Lynne Slivovsky California Polytechnic State University

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Lynne Slivovsky received her B.S. in Computer and Electrical Engineering and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University in 1992, 1993, and 2001, respectively. She worked with the Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) Program from 2001 to 2003. In Fall 2003, she started a tenure-track assistant professor position in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She received a Frontiers In Education New Faculty Fellow Award in 2003. In 2006, she was named the Hood Professor of Electrical Engineering. Her research is in the areas of haptics, human computer interaction, computer vision, and engineering education. In her free time, she enjoys mountaineering, kayaking, and photography.

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Albert Liddicoat California Polytechnic State University

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Albert A. Liddicoat received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering and his M.S. degree in Engineering Management from Stanford University in 1996, 2002 and 1999, respectively. Dr. Liddicoat worked for IBM’s Storage Technology Division from 1990 until 2002 where he held many positions in disk drive development including: servo system test and integration, ASIC development, system electronics and architecture, program management, and business line management. Currently, he is the Forbes Associate Professor and the Director of the Computer Engineering Program at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. His research interests include computer architecture, computer arithmetic, networks, and re-configurable computing.

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

Transforming the Microprocessor Class: Expanding Learning Objectives with Soft Core Processors


The rapid evolution of semiconductor technology over the past four decades has fueled the information age and an era of ubiquitous computing. Furthermore, the exponential increase in the number of transistors available in integrated circuits has drastically changed the field of electrical and computer engineering. Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools allow systems engineers to work at higher-levels of abstraction to design increasingly more complex systems. Embedded system design has been a keystone course in electrical and computer engineering curricula. Following the migration from discrete components to programmable logic devices in introductory digital design courses we expect to see a similar, yet more selective, shift to the use of soft core processors in future microprocessor and embedded systems courses. Soft core processors and peripheral devices can readily be implemented on a programmable logic device, typically a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), and can be customized with respect to system requirements. Off-the-shelf processors cannot offer a customized computer system or the ability to design user-specified hardware as part of a system-on-a-chip. These aspects are the most advantageous characteristics of the soft core approach to embedded systems. Students themselves will design their computing platform using only the necessary peripherals. They will define the memory system and assign addresses to memory mapped peripheral registers. They will analyze system performance based on hardware and software tradeoffs against a backdrop of the utilization of hardware resources, thus vastly increasing the design space they consider for their projects. In this paper we predict a shift in the pedagogical approach to teaching the microprocessor course from one that uses off the shelf processors to one that will include the teaching of the soft core processor. We support our claim by reviewing advances in the programmable logic industry from which these processors have emerged, outlining current soft core processor applications and trends in industry, detailing learning objectives for a soft core- based approach (patterned after the course we currently teach), and summarizing resources available to those interested in using soft core processors at their schools.


The introductory microprocessor/microcontroller/embedded systems course (which we will refer to as the introductory embedded systems course for brevity) is integral to the electrical and computer engineering curriculum. Variations exist in processor, programming language, and textbook yet there are similarities in the topics covered and the labs performed1. Students are introduced to a processor, its architecture and instruction set, and the fundamentals to program and interface the processor to the outside world with D/A and A/D converters, for example. Students learn about memory mapped I/O, configure timers and serial interfaces (UARTs, SPI and I2C), and design real-time systems with interrupt-based schemes. Historically, this course has used commercial off-the-shelf processors; ARM, Atmel AVR, and flavors of the Motorola and Freescale 68HCxx processors are commonplace.

Slivovsky, L., & Liddicoat, A. (2007, June), Transforming The Microprocessor Class: Expanding Learning Objectives With Soft Core Processors Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2758

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