News Release

Making, Breaking and Hacking in Electrical Engineering

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Undergradutes working on their electrical engineering project in the EnVision Maker Studio at UC San Diego.

San Diego, CA, March 08, 2016 -- From a single resistor to LEDs, audio amplifiers and robots, freshman and sophomore students in Electrical Engineering’s new ECE5 class at the University of California, San Diego make and break as they get hands-on exposure to electrical engineering fundamentals.

The class is held in the new EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio at UC San Diego. The class is also part of the Experience Engineering Initiative at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.  

“We’re exposing them early to show them that they can do it, and then we’ll build up the theory with rigorous coursework,” said electrical engineering professor Drew Hall, one of the instructors for the course. Normally, you’d need four years of theory to be able to build these types of circuits, he said.

Consisting of four labs, each with five or so individual challenges that build on each other, students master increasingly difficult concepts that culminate in a final project – a line-following robot and an opportunity to push their creativity with all that they have learned throughout the quarter.

“For a first year to get this type of hands-on experience is unheard of – I wasn’t expecting it,” said Luke Wulf, a freshman computer engineering major. “We’ve only been in this class for a month, and within the first three weeks I was controlling an LED light with a remote control.”

Jasmine Simmons, a first year computer science major, agrees. “The TAs showed us how to do the basics – for example, they taught us how to connect a wire to an LED light – and then we got to take home the Arduino and create our own project with it. I like that I got to make it do what I wanted it to do, rather than complete an assignment that someone else created.”

After LEDs came audio amplifiers. The students extend their practical knowledge even further by following instructions to connect resistors, capacitors, op-amps, and speakers to a breadboard. An all-in-one instrument allows the students to power the system and understand how signals flow through their circuit. The students also created high- and low-pass filters to visualize frequencies above and below a set frequency.

That’s how a radio works, explained Alex Smith, a fourth year computer science major and TA for the course. 

The audio amplifier they are building will come in use, say the students.

“We go to the beach and forget to bring speakers – this is small, portable, and it’s something we made ourselves and something we want to show our friends,” said Simmons.

After exploring the analog world, the students dive into the digital domain and start to understand how a computer thinks.  Advancing their understanding of audio signals, they learn how signals are converted to 1s and 0s.  The students get early exposure to MATLAB, a commonly-used engineering programming tool, as they learn how signals can be quickly manipulated to achieve a desired result – in this case, interesting sounds.

The Final Project: Line-Following Robot

Mechanical engineering meets electrical engineering and computer science during the final project, where students build a line-following robot using the same micro-controller Arduino from the first week of the course.

“They use their knowledge of Arduino to program the robot to sense a black line and drive a vehicle as it responds autonomously to any disturbance or change in direction,” said Karcher Morris, a graduate student and TA for the course. “Building the robot and seeing their code and the theory in action is a great way to end the course and start them off on their four year electrical and computer engineering journey.” 

Once the students succeed at building a robot that is capable of following a line, they can incorporate features from their previous projects or try new sensors.

“The students can also add actuators, like wireless radio communications, or ultrasonic wall-detecting sensors, or even GPS technology,” said Morris.  “They also get to experiment with 3D modeling and printing, and add something they designed to their robot.” 

At the end of the course, teams compete for titles for their robots, including best-performing and most creative.

“Sitting with a group of people and talking about theory is one thing, but sitting together and building something is another experience entirely,” said Smith. “You get something different out of it, whether it’s motivation, or confidence – that really convinces you that you can build something greater together than what you can on your own.” 

Story written by Deborah Osae-Oppong (UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering communications team)

Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering