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University Alliance Blog

PatrickK_71
Employee

Practical Magic In a Pandemic

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2021! I am sure we are all glad to see the end of 2020! For the first blog of the New Year, I invited Dr. Steven Leeb of MIT to write a guest blog regarding how he was able to keep teaching – and his students were able to keep learning during the pandemic. We would like to hear your stories of how you and your courses fared during the pandemic. Feel free to make liberal use of the comment section!

 

PRACTICAL MAGIC IN A PANDEMIC

Steven B. Leeb

 

Engineering instruction in the 20th century saw a laudable and transformative focus on science in engineering education, a desire to see past the rote application of table data to the creative possibilities of the physics and mathematics underlying engineering methods.  The clarity that motivated these changes came at the great price exacted by the conflicts of the last century.  At that time, a substantial number of students had developed hands-on skills as ham radio operators, in repairing vehicles, and in being immersed in a world of consumer products that could be examined, taken apart, reassembled, and fixed. These students came hungry to understand the math and physics that made a clearly visible world work.

A new challenge faces students and their instructors in the 21st century, the art of managing and delighting in complexity. Mathematics and modeling remain essential.  However, the intense complexity and monolithic construction of modern products have conspired to remove many of the preparatory experiences that instructors took for granted in the past. It’s not really possible to take your phone apart anymore and learn from it, much less have it go back together and work. A light bulb has become a mysterious menagerie of components.  Today, a balanced educational experience that combines exciting analytical methods with context and the essential ability to understand and manipulate the physical world empowers engineers to prosper in designing class-leading devices and world-changing products. 

A subtle but insidious aspect of the pandemic on engineering education is our inability to get together around a lab bench.   The strongest learning experiences are often associated with a surprise.  Surprises are arguably most often found at a bench, a place where craft is practiced in an apprentice program, where students learn with skilled designers in an environment that includes parasitic components, unexpected coupling, and real constraints on energy, heat removal, and dynamic performance. Recent reports of the impending obsolescence of in-person engineering education are greatly exaggerated.  We are, of course, fortunate to live in a remarkable time with many miraculous tools, including remote meeting, online laboratories, and simulation packages, all of which help during a disaster like the pandemic.  Not one of these tools replaces the essential educational need to design and debug actual physical systems.

During the pandemic, I have continued to teach two hands-on classes at MIT, one on embedded control and the other on power electronics.  The classes include four or five intense laboratory assignments over a period of eight weeks, followed by a four-week project period where students design and build a system that they propose. These classes have gone “remote,” but we have been fortunate to maintain full take-home hardware design and build experiences for our students. How? With PSoC.

During the final project period, for example, we would normally support students with a full laboratory of expensive discrete components plus supervision to solder or use other construction tools.  A great deal of our “business as usual” approach has been curtailed during the pandemic.  But PSoC has saved our ability to offer students the opportunity to create with hardware. The combination of state-of-the-art embedded control, configurable digital devices with the flexibility of an entire parts catalog on board, and incredible configurable analog capability, makes PSoC our "desert island" device.  There has never been so superb a vision or execution for constructing useful electronics as PSoC. We joke with the students that PSoC was forged by Cypress-Infineon in the heart of a dying sun.  PSoC is Brunelleschi's dome, the Ardabil carpet, an SR-71, and a footstep in the lunar dust.  Students take wing with it, finding an incredible array of components that they can deploy or create in PSoC hardware, including quadrature encoders, USB interfaces, MIDI interfaces, and drives for a variety of display technologies.  They delight in exploring the “parts store” with built-in datasheets inherent in PSoC, and they have been brilliant in executing sophisticated projects for musical interfaces, motor control, video display, and a host of other exciting ideas, all in the safety of their remote locations.  And they learn that the magic that PSoC brings to their course work is the same magic that practicing engineers use to build “real” products that they may have in their pockets or driveways or living rooms.

Pretty impressive for a few square millimeters of silicon. Thank you Cypress-Infineon!

Next blog will feature a very cool project from students at the Letterkenney Institute of Technology (LYIT) so stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are a few pictures of the PSoC 5 LP student projects from 2020.

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Camera controller

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Pac Man!

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MIDI Lighting Control

Please feel free comment on this blog and/or tell us how you and your courses survived during this pandemic.

Until next time,

Patrick

 

 

About the Author
Patrick Kane is the director of the Cypress University Alliance Program. This program is dedicated to partnering with academia and universities to ensure that professors and students have access to the latest Cypress PSoC technology for use in education and research.