ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
ECE News

Students are AMPed up about new lab

Colorful cube composed of RGB LED lights

Kevin Lee built and programmed an RGB LED cube that cycles through light sequences.

Most electrical and computer engineering students gain hands-on learning experience by taking design courses or working on team-based extra-curricular projects. While these are valuable opportunities, sometimes the pressure of deadlines and the structure of fixed objectives can limit student opportunities.

To encourage and support ECE students interested in designing their own projects, ECE Lab Engineer Bob Lineberry founded the Autonomous Mastery Prototyping (AMP) Lab in fall 2012. Operating under the philosophy: "Think it; Design it; Build it; Own it," the lab provides access to workspace, equipment, and mentorship for all ECE students, regardless of status, affiliation, or skill level.

Self-guided projects

"The innovation in the lab has been to let students choose and manage their own projects with the idea that self-motivation and peer management can be powerful motivators," says Dennis Sweeney, ECE's director of instructional laboratories. "We haven't been disappointed."

Yasir Ghunaim with smartphone device

Yasir Ghunaim demonstrates his smartphone facial recognition system.

Students are exploring a variety of interests in the AMP Lab. Current projects include an all-terrain autonomous ground vehicle, a laser harp, an LED animation cube, and a facilitated echolocation system.

Yasir Ghunaim (BSEE '14) is creating a smartphone-enabled facial recognition system that can be operated through bluetooth or infrared remote control to allow a user to take video of himself. "I do projects on my own to supplement my classes," he says. "I can take my own time and don't have the pressure of a grade."

Accessible workspace

The AMP Lab holds weekly meetings during the semester to keep members apprised of each other's projects and to acquaint new students with the lab's policies and opportunities. The lab is open 24/7 to all ECE students who commit to a project, making it easy for students to access workspace at their convenience.

"During my whole time as an undergrad I always wanted to work on cool projects, but the dorm room is not a good place to work on projects," says Hunter Long (BSEE '14). "I was really excited when I heard about the AMP Lab."

Long is developing a device that will allow the visually impaired to navigate by detecting obstacles through echolation. His system generates a sound pulse and makes a binaural recording of the pulses reflected from nearby objects. Playback of the recording is slowed to a frequency detectable by human ears and the listener uses the time between echoes to judge distance.

Mentorship and training

As well as working on his own project, Long serves as one of the AMP Lab's student mentors, offering technical assistance to other students. AMP mentors have diverse expertise in areas such as circuit design, programming languages, Android apps, and amateur radio.

Brian Lilienthal works to solder a PCB board

Brian Lilienthal is one of the AMP Lab's soldering certification teachers.

"AMP Lab mentors help participants merge theoretical concepts, obtained through coursework and self-study, with the experience the mentors have gained through successful completion of multiple projects," Lineberry explains.

Student mentors also run the AMP Lab's soldering certification program. Whereas most ECE students learn to solder by watching training videos, the AMP Lab requires students to populate a PCB board and prove that it works in order to earn certification.

"A lot of people had lots of trouble because watching videos and actually soldering are two different things," says Dennis Shen (BSCPE '13). "With the AMP Lab certification, I sat down with my mentor and soldered a PCB board. If I had trouble with anything, I could ask my mentor what he would do."

Free materials

James Demma demonstrates his laser harp.

James Demma demonstrates his laser harp.

The AMP Lab provides PCB boards and other materials at no charge, so that a financial burden is not an impediment. "The AMP Lab helped me out with a bunch of components and equipment that I would have otherwise had to pay for," says James Demma (MSCPE '13).

Demma built a laser harp that is played by breaking laser beam "strings." The harp's microcontroller blinks a laser, which is deflected by a mirror scanner into multiple beams. When a beam is deflected by a user's hand, a light sensor triggers the construction of a MIDI message.

Future directions

Lineberry hopes that promoting successful projects will stimulate new interest and continuing growth for the AMP Lab, since the lab's student teaching model requires that mentors train their eventual replacements.

"We need twice as many core members to become self-sustaining," says Lineberry. "The future of the AMP Lab rests largely on the shoulders of the student participants."

Recruitment plans for fall 2013 also include the use of design kits to allow students who are new to AMP to explore areas of interest and lab resources with one-evening projects. "A student discovers her or his passion by exploring attractive projects," says Lineberry.