San Diego, CA, July 24, 2006 -- Calit2 postdoctoral researcher B.S. Manoj kept one foot in the lab when he stepped into the classroom this spring to teach a data-networking course at the Jacobs School of Engineering for the first time. "Teaching the course was a good experience for me," he says. "I gained insights on organizing a depth course and enjoyed working with the students."
Manoj taught the second of two required depth courses on data networks. He used methods that complemented the theoretical concepts taught in the course. "Practical assignments helped in relating their understanding of theory to today's real networking systems," explains Manoj. To provide students with insights into those systems, he included a network traffic analysis assignment. "I really enjoyed capturing the flow information," says electrical engineering major Nha Huong Vu. "We learned in a realistic way about wireless networking, which was very good."
When Manoj was a Ph.D student, he and his advisor, C. Siva Ram Murthy at IIT Madras in India, wrote a networking textbook. Ad Hoc Wireless Networks: Architectures and Protocols is now in use at several universities around the world. The Calit2 researcher says he was "honored to be able to teach a part of the advanced wireless networking section" from his textbook. He is also using his experience to shape ideas for future networking courses which bridge not only theory and practice, but also keep the students on the forefront of the technology.
Manoj is not the only Calit2 staff researcher spending time in the classroom this year. Project scientist Zhongren (Arnold) Cao developed a new quarter-long design project for ECE192 with Ph.D. student Nandan Das. The course focused on communications systems design on field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). "We warned potential students at the beginning that the load would be very heavy and the course quite a challenge," remarks Cao. "All the students who signed on were very motivated and that makes me very happy."
The students worked long, hard hours. "It is a big time commitment; we are always in the lab -- weekends, weeknights," recounts Joshua Ng. Adds Maya ElChebeir: "It is the class that you spend the most time on and it is a hard class." But, with a chorus of agreement from her lab-mates, she declares it her favorite class. "It was a very fun class," remarks ElChebeir, "and we learned a lot."
There were a total of 12 undergraduates in the Calit2-sponsored ECE192 (three teams of four). The ratio of women to men was nearly even, with 5 women and 7 men, a much higher proportion than usually seen in engineering courses. All 12 were electrical engineering majors. Christine Liang had already taken ECE191 but also chose to take ECE192 because she loves design projects. Says Liang: "I had a lot of fun and really liked that they taught you before you needed to do it in the lab."
Unlike the ECE191 design course, which emphasizes open-ended projects that are implemented over a series of academic quarters, the objective of ECE192 is different: each team must design and implement a complete communications system on an FPGA. The same fundamental project was completed by all three student teams, each with slightly differing implementations based on the design choices made by the team.
Cao and Das, who also works as a systems engineer at ViaSat, Inc., developed ECE192 to give students experience in applying the content from several courses to a real system. By working through the process, they learned exactly how communications engineers in companies and labs work -- from system understanding to system modeling, hardware and the experimental process. After three or four years of theoretical classes on communications systems, digital signal processing and digital design, the class provided a good bridge from theory to practice. Explains Das: "The students need to learn how you take the formula and put it into the hardware."
Jonathan Liu took ECE192 in part to find out which area of engineering he preferred: circuits, communications or digital signal processing? "It works if you know all of them. In my classes where the focus is on only one, you cannot see how they intertwine," says Liu. "But in this class, they integrate all three."
ECE192 students attended more than half a dozen regular lectures and tutorials in the beginning of the quarter. With the primary focus more on the implementation side than the design process itself, Das prepared a common design plan in conjunction with the lectures and other assignments. The juxtaposition of the lectures and assignments gave the students a sense of the relationship between the lab and the conceptual theories. As student Michelle Park notes: "It is clearer now than it was when I was taking the communications theory classes. Now I know how it works."
Calit2's Cao gives much of the credit for the course's success to Das. "He was here in the lab, all the time working with the students," says Cao. "He has the ability to handle the different skill levels of the students very well. Some students had a communications background, but others did not. Mainly it's Nandan who made this work."
For full-time, staff researchers such as Arnold Cao and B.S. Manoj, teaching is not a requirement. But both see their classroom experience as an extension of their research careers, as well as contributions to the development of highly skilled and talented engineers for the future.
They were impressed with the quality of students in their ECE classes. Indeed, Cao was so impressed that three of his students are now working alongside him for the summer. Jonathan Lau and Joshua Ng have been hired as student researchers, and Nahal Masoum Abadi was awarded a Calit2 Undergraduate Summer Scholarship to work with Cao.