ECE Department wins $100,000 grant from NSF for new undergraduate curriculum

The National Science Foundation has awarded the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University $100,000 to pioneer a new undergraduate curriculum.

The Departmental-Level Reform of Undergraduate Engineering Education Planning Grant, as it is officially called, is for one year, after which the department will apply for a follow-up implementation grant (a three-year, $1.5-million award).

The project’s principal investigator is Leslie Collins, associate professor of ECE, who is heading a department-wide team.

Though the current curriculum is solid, it hasn’t been significantly restructured in 20 years. The goal of the new effort is to more tightly integrate modern engineering applications into course work.

The team came up with a novel theme -- Integrated Sensing and Information Processing (ISIP) -- to capitalize on the research strengths of the Duke faculty and integrate the four key fields of electrical and computer engineering: circuits and devices, signals and systems, electromagnetics, and computer engineering.

“We decided that the best way to provide students with a better understanding of ECE as a field – and to answer the question, ‘Why am I studying this?’ -- is to place each topic in a common, thematic framework,” Collins said.

One of the most critical pieces of the new curriculum will be the newly developed introductory course for first-year students. Theoretical concepts discussed in class will be tightly coupled to the laboratory component of the course in which the students will build a weather monitoring station.

“The goal of this framework is to present basic electrical engineering concepts concurrently with the practical application of those concepts,” said Lisa Huettel, assistant professor of the practice.

“This is an incredibly important project,” said April S. Brown, ECE department chair. “Undergraduate students need to be able to express their passion for designing and building early in their college years.”

The course will begin with the problem of sensing -- the extraction of information from the environment -- and will introduce students to the devices used for sensing, their organization into circuits, and their calibration and reliability. The weather station has five different sensors with different circuit structures. The students will then move to the problem of transmitting information. Since the weather station is wireless, radio frequency transmission will be most important, other modes of transmission could be considered as well. Next, the students will move to analysis of the sensor data which requires understanding of principles of signal processing. By incorporating the idea of a sensor-based alarm system, the project will require students to think about the control of external devices based on sensor information. Finally, students will learn about networking through the integration of the sensors into a functional system.

In addition to the introductory course, the ISIP theme will be carried throughout the curriculum in a number of ways. This may include expanding on the initial project (weather station) in later classes (e.g., adding new functionality) or introducing other systems (perhaps drawn from a faculty member’s research). Finally, the capstone design course will require the design of an ISIP system by a team of students.