Quietly, while we worry about the state of engineering education, the university engineering curriculum is being disrupted before our very eyes.
It began about five years ago when we saw the beginnings of an approach to learning that's now ramping pretty quickly. In 2007, the Mobile Studio project came onto the scene. In short it was a lab-in-a-box approach that put scope capabilities in the hands of engineering students. No need to book lab time, plus you can do your experiments in your dorm room or at Starbucks.
Lab in a box
Flash forward to this spring, and Analog Devices, which was involved in early versions of Mobile Studio, joined with Digilent to take lab-in-a-box to the next level (at $99, the price of a textbook).
The $99 Digilent Analog Discovery Design Kit and the more advanced $199 Digilent Analog Explorer Design Kit allow students to build and test a wide range of analog and digital circuits using their own PC without the need for any other equipment.
"We did it because students coming in had never touched a resistor before. And the first time they were was second semester of their sophomore year. They were unsure of electrical engineering was," said Kathleen Meehan, associate professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech.
In an interview earlier this year, she, Clint Cole, Digilent's president and founder, and Dave Babicz, ADI's director of global alliances, laid out the financial value proposition: A lab bench costs $5,000-$10,000 to replace; to establish a classroom is at least $100,000 and another $100,000 to man the labs.
"And that wasn't in the cards given the budget cuts we were enduring," Meehan said. "So doing experiments outside the classroom was the only way to establish a circuits lab and get them engaged in the process earlier."
Everyone has their interests in the project of course; the academics manage their budgets better and put something portable and powerful in the hands of students; IC providers get to sell parts and check off corporate-responsibility boxes.
But for ADI, there's something more: "It's not all altruism on our part. We need students to know more about analog circuits," Babicz said.
Disruption in the classroom
But what is really interesting (at least to me) about this trend, is how it portends to change the way we educate engineers. We all know about distance-learning and downloadable class materials; Apple and others eye hungrily the e-textbook market.
But things like lab-in-a-box allow educators to reinvent their classrooms.
That was Ken Connor's enthusiastic assessment when I chatted with him during the USA Science and Engineering Festival April 28 in Washington.
"A fundamental issue with engineering education is that universities are incredibly slow to change," said Conner, who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic, a key developer of Mobile Studio. "But talk to people in educational research, everybody is abandoning traditional lectures. It's called a flipped classroom. All my lectures are recorded. They watch at home and then they come to class and do something."
Now, with technology like lab in a box, "we can actually give students hardware homework. Send them home to design a filter that does X and they come back in and show it to us."
The hands on, human feedback, peer-reviewed engineering learning then becomes re-cemented in the classroom.
Technology is affording academia a chance at revolution; how quickly (or whether) it accepts the challenges is an open question.