Millard said he often uses Mobile Studio to illustrate concepts from his lectures and pencil-and-paper exercises. He described one experiment in which students were able to observe the waveforms of music as it was pumped from an iPod through the Mobile Studio board.
Millard said he can tell students are paying close attention to the Mobile Studio experiments because whenever he runs them, his students stop instant messaging and e-mailing one another to focus on the work. "They are engaged. They are seeing the kind of thing that made them want to become engineers in the first place," he said.
The project boasts a handful of prominent sponsors, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Analog Devices Inc. It has undergone pilot testing at several institutions, including RPI and Howard University (Washington). Outreach activities have also been conducted with an elementary school district and some high schools in upstate New York, as well as Adirondack Community College.
Coutermarsh said Mobile Studio has applications beyond electrical engineering. Because of the similarities between equipment used in electrical engineering and that used in physics, he said, RPI's physics department is showing interest in Mobile Studio.
Doug Mercer, an Analog Devices fellow who had a role in the development of Mobile Studio, estimates the Norwood, Mass., company has supported the project with more than $200,000 in cash and component donations. (The newer Mobile Studio board features the company's Blackfin DSP.) He said ADI representatives had been "blown away" by a presentation in which Millard and Coutermarsh offered a status report on the project.
Mobile Studio is just one weapon in educators' prolonged battle to help students understand complicated concepts by having them roll up their sleeves.
Rochit Rajsuman, Pinson Chair EE professor at San Jose (Calif.) State University, said his students become instantly more engaged when he walks them through exercises using circuit simulators in real-time. "It's like a new world opens up to them," he said. "The light bulbs go on, and their eyes just brighten."
Rajsuman noted that circuit simulators are available to students at no charge on a limited-use basis from companies such as Cadence Design Systems Inc. He said he believes use of circuit simulators in high schools and junior high schools could do a great deal to stimulate interest in engineering.
"Right now, as a society, we are missing that component," Rajsuman said. n
Dylan McGrath is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.