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Special Report ­
Information Technology

 April 1997



Computers and Engineering: Instructional Boon or Crutch?

Numerical computation programs, like MatLab (shown here ) are used by engineering students in many courses. While the programs help students to visualize the problem and solution, some faculty members are questioning whether, ultimately, these tools keep some students from learning "how to think like an engineer."

While information technology continues to change electrical and computer engineering, it is also affecting how engineering is taught.

At Virginia Tech, where engineering students have been required to own personal computers since 1984, the use of computers has changed almost every engineering course. Overall, most faculty members consider the computer to provide benefits to their courses, helping with communication, computation and visualization. However, professors also are concerned that the use of computers could be hurting how well students learn the basics.

Computers are used extensively by Department faculty and students for communication. Questions by email are routine and the number of courses with web sites grows each semester. Home pages have become the electronic bulletin boards, posting course information, news announcements, homework and test solutions. In addition, a number of courses have list servers, where students and faculty can post questions, comments and answers to all recipients.

Computers have changed the types and complexity of problems that students encounter. "In terms of the difficulty level of problems, the computer has helped tremendously," said Professor Hugh VanLandingham. "In the pre-computer era, we'd spend a couple of weeks on a serious problem. Now it can be done overnight. In terms of the actual mode of teaching, we present less hand-calculation procedures than in previous times. It's just not needed."

A Design Tool

Computers have helped in two areas, design and laboratories, according to Professor Richard Claus. "Students can do design and some calculations that were real tough to do before," he said. "We use computers a lot in the lab to take data and analyze data off the equipment. Most research projects take data using computers, and our folks have to know how to write programs and microprocessor code."

"Computers have helped tremendously in a lot of design courses," agreed Professor Scott Midkiff. "If we only have students build something to see if it works, then we only have time for them to see small things. However if we have them build the small things and do simulations to look at larger systems, they can see the relevance of what they are learning."

"The computer has been very effective in teaching radio," said Professor Charles Bostian. "There now are good radio circuit analysis programs that help students analyze designs. Students can design with 35 to 40 parts and see how the design will perform in real life. It's as good or better than building in a lab. You couldn't do this in the 1970s.... I'm really able to give bigger designs, and bigger problems, thanks to the computer," he said.

The Question of a Crutch

While computers enable more design and better communications, they also can serve as a crutch. "We must make sure that in our lower level classes the computer is used to verify analysis, not to do the analysis," said Professor Aicha Elshabini-Riad. "We need to use caution. If students have only to plug in numbers and get answers, we will create superficial education. We need to encourage the students to endure the hardship of real analysis. They need to know how to simplify a circuit, not just plug in numbers," she said.

Professor Bill Baumann agreed, "The computer allows us to include much more design in our courses. We have a lot more fun," he said. "The danger, however, is that there will be some students who just throw a problem on the computer and play endlessly until they get something to work - which is the antithesis of thought and learning. I don't know how to eliminate that altogether. What I try to do is structure a problem so that it will take three or four hours if students think, and 20 hours if they insist on blind iteration."

"I see students relying too much on computers, computation programs and symbolic manipulators - which is leading them away from self-discipline," said Professor Gary Brown. "They are using tools and have no way to check them. They come up with an answer on the computer and don't know enough to challenge their answer. They figure if the computer came up with the answer, it's got to be right...Maybe that's a faculty problem. We expect the students to be able to discriminate between that which they should use and that which they shouldn't use until later."

The End of Programming?

The amount of programming experience has also become a concern lately.

"When I used to teach circuits or fields, the students had to write in FORTRAN for a computer to work," Bostian said. "Now they use commercial software to plot and analyze their designs. They are getting very used to relying on commercial software. Very few students are programming anymore."

"The faculty is split on this issue," said Professor Ted Rappaport. "Some think students should use canned packages to solve problems. I think that it's important to write code as undergraduates, even if there are good commercial software packages. If you are working in the state-of-the-art in any field, you will have to modify existing code because your problem will be unique."

He gave an example, "When I teach radio wave propagation, I like to give mobile radio problems to illustrate the concepts. One problem I assign is to design the required transmitter power for a cellular phone traveling in a large city. The students have to generate the random fading functions. They have to write the code...It's part of our mandate to train good engineers who know how to use computers and solve their own problems with software."

The Promise of Multimedia

Multimedia proponents see the technology changing the way engineering students learn. "Our colleagues in education and arts and sciences have found that by using interactive multimedia technology, their students grasp material faster and retain it better," said Professor Joe Tront, who also serves as assistant dean for engineering computing. " Multimedia gives us another means of engaging the students. They can see, hear, and do all at once," he said.

"The idea behind the use of multimedia in the classroom is that students find their own paths of knowledge," Tront explained. "While navigating through the information, they create mental paths in their minds. The next time they need the information, they follow the mental markers that they created the first time through."

"Multimedia is a great thing to watch," said Claus. "However, the time it takes to create a presentation that gets out of date quickly is immense. Given how our time is structured now, that would be like writing a textbook." He sees the technology becoming popular in the classroom "when it is as easy to prepare a multimedia presentation as it is to write a software program, in say, 20 minutes."

Professor Louis Beex sees multimedia helping to illustrate signal processing. "It's great to be able to visualize things. It can help everybody visualize the concepts - not just the student in the lab. You can show concepts from several different points of view and different senses."

Bostian also sees potential for multimedia. "I would like to use it to illustrate abstract concepts, how something works. When teaching I get constrained by what I can draw," he said.

Are computers effective teachers?

"Technology as the magic bullet for education is being vastly oversold," cautioned Professor Jim Armstrong. "We can use the computers for computation and communication, but we must maintain the interpersonal aspect of teaching," he said.

"Computers are infinitely patient and good for drill," Bostian said. "However, I believe the key to teaching is human interaction and getting the student excited."

"It's not that you replace one mode with another," said Midkiff. "But you provide an environment that has many modes of learning and let the students wrap themselves in the environment that makes sense for them. We aren't using the computers to replace the faculty, but to enhance our teaching," he concluded.

Internet 3D Electronic Simulations

photo in lab

Students taking EE 4214, Electronics, have a unique opportunity to perform structured 2D or 3D simulations of semiconductor devices through a web browser.

The simulation tools that the Web site uses, Technology CAD (TCAD) are typically accessible only to professionals with high-performance workstations. "Also, TCAD does not have a user-friendly interface," said Professor Alex Huang, who is developing the site. Huang hopes that by providing a Web-based server interface to the core TCAD engines, Virginia Tech can make the tools available to undergraduate students to help in their understanding of semiconductor devices and nanofabrication processes.

"This gives them excellent, valuable industrial-like experience," Huang said. As semiconductor devices have become smaller and faster, physical simulation has become an essential tool for companies involved in leading-edge semiconductor design and manufacturing. The process is even more complex than it was two years ago, and all the major semiconductor manufacturers use process and device modeling programs to enhance the results they get from their experiments. These programs greatly reduce design time and costs, leverage design talent, and ultimately, get products to market faster.

The Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, June 10, 1997
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