Behind the Lectern: 3 tips to introducing new systems in your classroom

Dr. Mark A. Yoder has been professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN since 1988. As an author and educator he has been involved with groundbreaking engineering educational initiatives such as DSP First and the Infinity Project and has over 25 years of experience in leading faculty workshops. Read on to learn three tips that Dr. Yoder has to offer on integrating new technology into your curriculum.

Tip #1: Choose the subset of hardware that you want to teach and engage yourself with the hardware, software and community supporting it. 

Personally, I like to gather as much information on the hardware as I can initially by watching tutorials online and following along with examples to get a sense of everything the system can do. For my Embedded Linux course, I chose the BeagleBone Black, based on TI Sitara™ AM335x ARM Cortex-A8 processor, because it was an embedded Linux single-board computer that offered a lot of possibility due to how much already existed on the processor.  You can plug it into a USB port and that’s all you need; the software is already there and you can get up to speed quickly. The beagleboard.org community is rich with examples and guidance.  My students and I contribute, and, sharing our course and project materials in the open source not only helps others, it helps us become better engineers.

Tip #2: Match the pace of the course to the complexity of the system.

I teach in two hour time blocks with the BeagleBone Black, with the first hour of class introducing a new concept and the second hour focused on applying that concept. It allows for students to get their hands on the technology and work through issues themselves. This enables them to evaluate problems with time to figure out the components needed to solve it. For example, we were wiring up a 64 LED matrix in my ECE497 course; however, the sample code I used the year prior had broken, so the students went out on their own and researched how to fix the code. In allowing my students the time in class to work through the issue with assistance, they learn how to evaluate systems and work through problems as they will on the job.  With the roadmap now in the BeagleBone family; BeagleBone Wireless and BeagleBone Blue Robotics, my students have built upon their basic knowledge to understand deeper systems applications.

Tip #3: Choose projects that allow your students to explore hardware in unique ways.

For one of the projects, we worked on an aquaponics project where we programmed the BeagleBone to gather data from sensors across multiple tanks. These sensors were monitoring the PH of the liquid and the humidity of the air around the tanks to sustain the health of system. The BeagleBone logged the data onto the cloud every ten minutes. The ease of connecting to the cloud with the hardware made the project more accessible and helped us better understand the way the system worked. For these types of projects, I allow the students to choose what coding language they want to use with the BeagleBone since it supports multiple languages. This allows for students to have even greater flexibility in their projects. No matter the hardware, the project is what allows students to get engaging hands-on experience and intimately understand how to troubleshoot and work through problems.

As a professor, there are a lot of decisions to make in choosing how to engage students and ensure that they are ready to enter the workforce after graduation. However, by implementing industry-standard, student-owned hardware systems, you can best prepare your students for life after college. 

Helpful BeagleBone black resources from Dr. Yoder:

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