Making Innovation an EdVenture

Posted on: 10/1/2013; Updated on: 2/7/2014
By Steven Powell, 803-777-1923

MVS Chandrashekhar faces one of the most difficult tasks in teaching: guiding freshman engineering majors through their first college-level engineering course. It’s a pathway fraught with attrition, but he’s keeping his electrical engineering class engaged this semester with an innovative project.

“In engineering, and not just electrical engineering, we have a real problem with losing students in the first year,” said Chandrashekhar. “The research has shown that one reason you lose them is that they often don’t feel the immediate impact of their work.”

But that’s not the case in Chandrashekhar’s “Introduction to Electrical Engineering” course. In the past, project-heavy courses posed all sorts of logistical obstacles, given the need for scheduling laboratory time. This semester, Chandrashekhar’s syllabus is, by design, devoid of formal exams and instead focuses largely on hands-on projects that students can work on just about anywhere.

“What’s allowed us to do this is this kit we found,” said Chandrashekhar, referring to The Analog Discovery USB device, made by Digilent. “It’s a fairly new product. For a hundred bucks, just the cost of a textbook, you get a USB device that gives you access to oscilloscopes, voltage sources, and all sorts of funky electrical characterization instruments that would have cost about $30,000 and required a lab bench ten years ago.”

And the new technology has already opened a lot of doors.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Chandrashekhar said. “It’s allowed us to decentralize the laboratory experience completely. I can say to them, ‘now that you know how to use this, go home and try this lab in your dorm room.’ They can do a project in a more rational way, where they’re reading up on theory and following a guide, or they can just try new ways out and see how they work, which is how a lot of learning works best.”

With the students able to experiment and design on their own, Chandrashekhar was able to make a community-focused semester-long project – the Freshman Innovation Challenge – the centerpiece of the class experience.

They’re really doing the whole product development cycle in the space of a semester. You want to keep them engaged, and this is one way of doing it.

The class was divided into 15 four-person teams, each charged with designing and building a display for the Tinker Tech space in Columbia’s EdVenture Children’s Museum. Over the course of October and early November, the 15 projects will be culled to the five best, which will be presented at a community event at EdVenture in mid-November. Public evaluations will be part of selection process for the three winning projects to be put on display.

But the goal isn’t just to create great displays for EdVenture. As an instructor, Chandrashekhar is trying to provide as much engagement as possible throughout the semester. The students are learning to work in teams and preparing periodic video updates that chart their progress and are also defending their design choices to their professor, peers and the public.

“They’re really doing the whole product development cycle in the space of a semester,” Chandrashekhar said. “You want to keep them engaged, and this is one way of doing it. If you lose them freshman year – well, that’s it. Done.”


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