A New Application-Oriented Electronic Circuits Course for non-Electrical Engineering Students Using Arduino and NI VirtualBench


Teaching circuits to non-electrical engineering students has always been a challenging task since many of these students find the circuit theory difficult, abstract and unrewarding. This can be partly associated with the fact that oftentimes the first circuit course that is offered to non-electrical engineering students, is the same as the one offered to electrical engineering students. At UC Davis, while students from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and biological and agricultural engineering learn about the basic circuit theory in ENG 17 (Circuits I), many of them may find the specific arrangement of the circuits elements in most of the circuits that they study, random and arbitrary. Consequently, they do not appreciate the importance and applications of the theory which is taught to them and thus lose their interest in circuits.

A good opportunity to win back students’ interest in learning circuits, is the second circuit course which for non-electrical engineering students is an introduction to electronic circuits and systems (ENG 100). In this research experiment, the syllabus of ENG 100 is revised to be more application-oriented to provide students with insight in the application and role of circuits in larger systems. Considering that most of the non-electrical engineering students need to learn how to build circuits for instrumentation applications, the course is structured to be about different building blocks of a practical measurement system. In the lectures, the instructor starts with different types of sensors followed by sensor circuits, analog (op-amp) amplifiers, analog signal processing circuits and filters, basics of analog-to-digital conversion (ADC), digital signals and digital logic circuits with an emphasis on their applications in an instrumentation system. In the laboratory, students work on individual building blocks of a light meter and at the end, they connect the different building blocks together to build a system that can show the light intensity on scale of 0 to 9 on a 7-segment display when a flashlight is brought close to a light-dependent resistor (LDR) inside a Wheatstone bridge. Fig. 1 shows a prototype of the final project implemented by one of the students in Fall Quarter 2016. This project provides students with the opportunity to work on the full chain of blocks in a sensor system and to build a circuit that completes a meaningful task possible. This is possible thanks to the availability of Arduino-based boards such Teensy 3.2 which are extremely easy to work with. Moreover, the adoption of National Instruments VirtualBench, facilitates a more efficient measurement experience in the laboratory.


Figure 1: The photo of a prototype for final project

To study the effectiveness of the proposed syllabus on increasing students’ motivation in learning circuits, ENG 100 students in Fall Quarter 2016 were asked to participate in a research study. The study consisted of a 5-10 minute voluntary survey with 9 five-point Likert scale questions on students’ experiences completing the final laboratory project of the course. Students were informed that no identifying information would be collected about the participants and that the instructor would not know which students chose to participate in the survey and thus there would not be any impact on their grade for participating or opting out of the study. The questions in the performed survey are as followed:

A summary of the survey responses is tabulated in Table. 1 and the distribution of responses is illustrated in Fig. 2. As shown in Table 1, the sample means ranged from 3.84 to 4.84, which strongly suggests that most of the students were satisfied with the course structure. A brief study of the solid bars in Fig. 2 provides additional support for the same conclusion: the combined responses of “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” exceeded 90% on six of the statements and they exceeded 80% on all of the statements.

Although these results show a strong support for this new structure of ENG 100 syllabus, more work is needed to verify its effectiveness and its appropriateness of course’s coverage. Fortunately, this curriculum has been adopted by other ECE faculty who have agreed to run the same study at the end of their classes. This will provide us with more samples and it also verifies if there is any dependency between the achieved outcomes and different teaching styles of different instructors.  As a future work, stakeholders other than current students of ENG 100 such as instructors of subsequent courses and students who have completed subsequent courses are to be surveyed.

Table 1: Survey Responses and Statistics

Figure 2: Response Percentage by Survey Statement

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About Hooman Rashtian

Hooman Rashtian received the Ph.D. degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada in 2013 and the M.Sc. and B.Sc. degrees in Electrical Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology, Isfahan, Iran, in 2008, and 2006, respectively. He was a Postdoctoral Scholar at Davis MM-Wave Research Center (DMRC) at University of California, Davis from 2014 to 2016. Since July 2016, he has joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of California, Davis as a Lecturer with Potential Security of Employment (LPSOE).

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