J.J. González

State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz (UNITED STATES)
In the USA, typical student workload for an undergraduate-level electrical engineering course consists of weekly homework assignments, two midterm examinations and one final examination. Homework assignments carry a small weight (10% or 15%) toward the student final grade, and their aim is to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed for solving the problems presented to them in the examinations. But do they really help, and if so, to what extent? In this paper I discuss findings from an exploration of these questions, contextualized within the Electronics II course at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. Specifically, I found that, when compared to homework assignments, design mini-projects better prepared students at achieving this goal.

The rationale for this finding can be best explained through an analogy, where design mini-projects can be thought of as a closed-loop educational system and homework assignments as open-loop. In the homework assignment system, the only identifiable output for a given problem is its correct answer. Since this answer is often not available, the student has no means for immediately knowing whether or not he/she applied that knowledge and skills correctly (she/he will have to wait until the assignment is graded and the answer is made available). In other words, there is no feedback provided to the student, and thus the educational system is open-loop. On the other hand, in a system based on design mini-projects, the desired output is a circuit that complies with design specifications involving a desired performance. Typically, a student will attempt early designs, and obtain immediate feedback from simulation. As long as simulation reveals that the design specifications are not being met, there will be an error between the circuit desired and actual performances, and the student will know that she/he has not yet acquired the necessary knowledge and skills. This closed-loop interaction will continue until the design specifications are finally met, in which case the error will have been driven to zero, and the student will be in possession of the needed knowledge and skills, and ready to move into another design project.

In addition to providing immediate feedback that drives student learning, the design mini-project approach also has the following advantages.
a) Motivation: Many students are task oriented. They do not like solving a problem just to obtain a numerical answer, but they like very much designing a circuit with the clear objective of making it attain a predefined performance.
b) Graphical visualization: PSpice Simulation is a great visualization tool that aids students who struggle with abstraction, which is particularly important for engineering coursework, since it often involves application of concepts that are not easily perceivable.

This paper will present several examples of design mini-projects, pointing out at the knowledge and skills embedded in them. It will present examples on how the need for making the design mini-project work generated student actions that resulted in the acquisition of the needed knowledge and skills. It will finally present a comparative student assessment using the homework assignment approach and the design mini-project approach in the course Electronics II for two consecutive semesters, fall 2014 and spring 2015.