Electronics Engineering: Giving students the right experiences in wireless technology

Electronics Engineering: Giving students the right experiences in wireless technology

  • By IES
  • Posted 2 years ago
  • Reading Time : 7 minutes

Electronics Engineering: Giving students the right experiences in wireless technology

With the worldwide proliferation of wireless technology, as well as the promise of rapid growth in 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT), wireless connectivity has become a staple part of everyday life. So, too, has wireless communications become a mainstream area of teaching within Electronics Engineering, Information Technology and Computer Science.

Wireless communications is recognized as a distinct field of study. In November 2014, the US-headquartered Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) gave final approval to updated programme criteria for ‘Electrical, Computer, Communications, Telecommunication(s) and Similarly Named Engineering Programs’ [1]. The criteria outline that the curriculum for programmes containing the modifier ‘communication(s)’ or ‘telecommunication(s)’ must include topics around communication theory and systems, as well as design and operation of telecommunication networks for services such as voice, data, image, and video transport.

On the surface, the criteria make perfect sense for the needs of today’s industry. However, there exists a divide between the experience of new graduates and the desires of industry and research, which are trending towards the need to prototype using hardware. This trend is driven by investors and standards bodies who want real-life evidence of the impact new designs and proposals will have, before moving forward. The divide exists because most universities around the world teach communications engineering using only theory and lectures.

The value of good knowledge retention becomes apparent as students move on to further study in later years more to postgraduate classes. When students only read about subject matter without putting it into practice, they do not retain as much familiarity, from semester to semester, making it hard to build on their knowledge, in more advanced classes. This ultimately holds the students back, from investigating more modern, complex wireless techniques and technologies which are relevant to today’s research and industry. As a result, new graduates are required to undergo a significant and costly ramp-up period before they can work effectively. This ultimately hinders the progress of research and industry, as a whole.

Encouraging greater interaction with hardware allows for students to better relate to the associated theory.

A lack of interaction with hardware at university means students often fail to engage with subject matter because they cannot relate the associated theory to the world around them. A 2016 study at Florida International University has shown that introducing hardware laboratory time into wireless communications classes improves knowledge retention and student engagement, thus boosting student enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The learning experience can be enhanced with modern technologies such as that for software-defined radios.

So, if it makes so much sense to teach wireless communications using hardware and real-world signals, why isn’t everybody doing it today? Traditionally, the main barrier to teaching with radio and microwave frequency hardware has been the cost. A single instrument can cost in the range of tens or even hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Therefore, equipping a teaching laboratory with enough hardware, so that every student can get meaningful exposure to it, becomes prohibitively expensive, as it means that, typically, a laboratory station is made available for every two to three students, for at least two or three hours per week.

Modern technologies, such as that for software-defined radios, address the challenge of cost, as they are orders of magnitude cheaper than traditional instruments. Whilst not necessarily calibrated or as sensitive as traditional instruments, software defined radios not only provide an affordable prototyping platform for advanced research, they also serve as superb tools for teaching [3].

A software defined radio uses a broadband, generic analogue front end and moves all the functionality for a specific modulation scheme or application, which would have been implemented in hardware, into software. This makes for a very flexible device which can be used to explore concepts such as analogue and digital modulation, cellular communication, navigation standards, radar and much more.

However, software-defined radios can introduce prohibitive complexity. Many require low-level programming expertise in multiple languages and synthesis tools, which is unreasonable to assume of an undergraduate student. Extensive low level programming also prevents meaningful progress during a short two- or three hour laboratory session, ultimately holding back the level of projects that students could complete.

That is where high-level system design tools like LabVIEW can come in useful. Abstracting the low level complexity and keeping the entire design cycle in one environment speeds up discovery and prevents the need to shift back and forth, due to incompatibility - which is time consuming. Students can focus their efforts on learning communications techniques and algorithms, rather than spending all their time learning how to use the tools.

So, if technologies like software-defined radio have overcome the biggest barriers to introducing hardware labs to wireless communications classes, then the next challenge is creating the right course materials. This can be unfeasible for many academics who are balancing research responsibilities or teaching multiple engineering topics, such as circuit design, mechatronics and so forth. As wireless communications classes become more popular, academics may also find themselves in the position of having to introduce a class where they do not necessarily identify as an authority on the subject. They may not feel like they are knowledgeable enough to create course material in an area they are unfamiliar with.

The IEEE Hands-on Lab Exchange (labs.comsoc.org) aims to lower the course material barrier. The goal is to create an active community for sharing and collaboration around wireless communications laboratory materials. The community has just started and is looking for pioneers to contribute to its beginnings.

The Hands-on Lab Exchange web community is served by four main sections. The homepage provides an at-a-glance view of the latest courses as well as an overview of the community’s mission. The next section, ‘Submit Your Course’, allows educators to contribute to the community by uploading their course materials. The ‘Course Library’ gives visitors the ability to browse available courses and to check the status of updates or works-in-progress. Finally, the ‘Author Profiles’ provides background on each of the contributors and the ability to follow them and their latest updates.

The IEEE Hands-on Lab Exchange looks to increase the number of graduate engineers and computer scientists proficient in the use of radio and microwave frequency hardware. By lowering the barriers to introducing hardware laboratory classes, educators are better enabled to make this vision a reality than ever before. This collective experience and familiarity with hardware among graduates will directly benefit projects which seek to prototype next generation wireless communications and, in turn, accelerate discoveries in industry and research.

For further information or to get involved, readers are encouraged to visit lab.comsoc.org or contact the site moderators via [email protected]

The IEEE Hands-on Lab Exchange promotes collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

Republished with permission from The Singapore Engineer, February 2016