Engineered for Learning

When Associate Professor Eric Hansen began teaching electrical engineering at Thayer in the early 1980s, the tech world was regaling the debut of the personal computer and the intricate microprocessors–developed by electrical engineers–that made them possible. 

With the arrival of programmable components in the 1990s, engineers could fit more functionality into a tiny package, and they began to use code, rather than primitive equations, to capture elaborate designs. Smaller, faster, cheaper was the name of the game, following a long-term trend known as Moore's Law. Through these successive waves of technology change, students in Hansen’s Digital Electronics course, ENGS 31, have learned how to manipulate bits—the tiny units of data that tell computers what to do—into the building blocks of everything digital. 

Driven by this constant evolution in technology, Hansen says he has “melted down and recast” his Digital Electronics course every five years or so in order to keep pace with the new processes, methods, and materials that have emerged. But until recently, the design and delivery of his course had remained relatively constant: in-class lecture, weekly lab, final exam, big design project. While this is a fairly standard approach to teaching in the STEM disciplines, Hansen began to notice over time that he wasn’t getting the results he was hoping for.

“It was pretty clear that 90% of the learning in the course was happening in the lab,” Hansen says, “And I was always unhappy that we couldn’t bring more building into the classroom.” In engineering, like other applied sciences, opportunities to engage actively with the process—in this case, a design process of ideation, implementation, and testing, in cyclical fashion—often helps to cement more theoretical learning for students.

But it wasn’t until Hansen witnessed colleague Peter Robbie teaching his classes differently that he realized he could change things up. “He treated his classroom like an art studio,” says Hansen of Robbie. “I thought, 'why couldn’t I do that?'" 

So two years ago, Hansen experimented with reserving one class meeting each week for design exercises. Students gathered during x-hour at whiteboards in Thayer's Couch Project Lab to work in groups of four.

“The x-hour became a time where I could interact with students as they were solving problems,” Hansen explains. As he moved among the students, giving guidance where needed and thinking through questions with them as they worked through the design process–ideation, implementation, testing–Hansen began to see the possibilities.

At the time, though, the opportunity for hands-on learning was limited by lab time and space, and by the expense of using costly components and materials, like silicon, for students to try their hands at building. The vision of students being able to experiment, make adjustments to their designs, and iterate quickly seemed still out of reach.

Assistant Professor Geoff Luke, who joined as a second instructor on the course around this time, explains, “There were logistical issues to making it work. Without access to lab space, we had to figure out how to build components in the regular classroom. And with 60 students, one instructor couldn’t give feedback to everyone. We needed more facilitative resources.”

And to fulfill the vision completely, Luke and Hansen needed more technology. Specifically, they needed EDA Playground, a software tool that allows students to build in simulation rather than silicon, and provides instant feedback and faster turnaround time on designs. When they secured access to the software for their students last fall, and with the help of DCAL’s Gateway initiative, the two professors set to work redesigning the course to accommodate this new capability. 

Through Gateway, Hansen and Luke worked with instructional designer and engineering professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor on backward course design, and incorporated Learning Fellows, undergraduates who had taken the class previously, to provide in-class assistance and facilitation. In order to make time in the class period for more hands-on practice, the team realized they’d need to shift much of the content delivery, which had traditionally been done through in-class lecture, elsewhere.

“We started by asking, ‘What do we want students to get out of this class?’” says Hansen. “Then we refined our learning objectives to emphasize the important parts, and looked at which content we could offload into videos.”

Recording video lectures for students to watch outside of class is a common strategy, often called “flipping the classroom,” used to free up class time for other types of learning. Over the course of the fall and winter, Hansen and Luke recorded a dozen or so videos each, and developed classroom exercises for students to apply the concepts from the videos. Luke taught the redesigned course for the first time in spring 2017, and Hansen followed with an offering this summer.

Of the first run, Luke says, “It was tough at first developing relevant exercises that were at the right level, and provided enough background information." But, he says, he noticed at the end of term that the students’ final projects were better designed than in previous terms, and the students reported overwhelmingly that they appreciated the videos and exercises in their course evaluations. Hansen’s experience this summer has been similar. 

“When the example clicks and the exercise works, it’s great,” he says. “It can be really fun to teach this way–talking with students, seeing what they’re working on, getting to know them.” But, he says, the adjustment has not been entirely seamless. He’s still working at adapting his former lectures into relevant handouts, and as the in-class problems increase in complexity, he’s trying to strike the right balance between content delivery and hands-on practice.

Luke concurs, and points to the Learning Fellows and the students themselves as ready sources of in-the-moment feedback on how the course is going, which allows him to adjust in real time. He says he’s already looking ahead to next year, when he hopes to iterate on his own design and eliminate the exercises that didn’t work. “Teaching this way allows you to really see the learning happen,” he says. “I’m getting very tangible feedback about what is and is not working. It’s a much shorter feedback loop than I’ve had previously."

“That’s really valuable,” agrees Hansen, who also notes the value of receiving feedback from the Learning Fellows and instructional designer during their weekly teaching huddles, a kind of postmortem on what's working well and what needs improvement in the class.

“The whole flow of the class hour is different, and I’m trying to get that right,” Hansen says. "But leapfrogging the class [by teaching in consecutive terms with Luke] has allowed us to iterate much more quickly. It has been a real learning experience." 

As the field of digital technology continues to evolve, and students at Thayer continue to develop their understanding through experimentation, so too do Luke and Hansen. True to form, they are applying that same engineering design process–ideation, implementation, and testing—to iterate on their work as teachers in pursuit of a well-crafted learning experience for students.