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INCORPORATING PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS INTO AN INTRODUCTORY MATLAB COURSE

M. Ben Ghalia

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UNITED STATES)
Several engineering programs in various academic institutions have introduced MATLAB programming in either the freshman or sophomore year. These courses provide basic training in programming using the MATLAB software. More advanced courses go beyond the basic programming training by covering the implementation of numerical methods using MATLAB. Most engineering companies favor students and graduates who have experience with MATLAB for internship opportunities or permanent hires.

This paper describes a sophomore level-course that introduces electrical engineering students to MATLAB programming. The course is required in the Bachelor of Science of Electrical Engineering degree plan at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The course has a lecture component and a computer laboratory component where students work on laboratory problems with the aim of developing the necessary MATLAB programming skills that they can use in other electrical engineering courses such as electric circuits, signals and systems and automatic control. The curriculum of the course has been continuously enhanced to incorporate techniques intended to develop students’ problem solving skills. Most engineering textbooks that we adopt for our curriculum do not provide explicit methods for improving students’ ability to solve problems. One major goal of educating future engineers is to enable them to apply the engineering concepts they learn to new real-world situations. Hence, our research for understanding how students learn has led to the introduction of the top-down-design method to help enhance students’ problem solving skills. The focus of the training has shifted from writing simple programs to designing solutions for complex problems. Students often find it difficult to write a MATLAB program for a problem that has several requirements. The top-down design method that focuses on a step-by-step approach for designing a program is first covered in the lecture using an example. In addition to the example discussed in the lecture, students practice the approach on new problems in the laboratory. Students are asked to present the different stages of their program design. This approach of teaching students how to manage to solve a complex problem has been effective in improving their problem solving skills.

This paper provides examples of assessments used in the introductory MATLAB course. These assessments not only test students’ understanding of basic programming concepts, but also evaluate their abilities to design solutions for complex problems. To situate this paper within the context of existing literature, a number of important initiatives in introducing MATLAB programming undertaken by various engineering education programs are reviewed and discussed.