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Is Now the Right Time to Refresh Your EE Teaching Lab?

2021-06-10  |  8 min read 

Is Now the Right Time to Refresh Your EE Teaching Lab?

A professor asked me the other day why he should refresh his undergraduate electrical teaching laboratory. My immediate thought was, why not? Electrical engineering, after all, is at the heart of just about every technology revolution, including autonomous vehicles, quantum computing, and energy, and labs are critical to exposing students to the tools needed to enable future innovations. The question became more provocative as he added that the current equipment in the university teaching lab was all functional, being composed of decades-old HP and Agilent (now Keysight) electronic test instruments. Indeed, to teach electrical engineering concepts, that twenty-plus year-old equipment works fine. From an historical perspective, Lord Maxwell’s articulation of the theory of electromagnetism, the basis for electrical engineering, has been around for a century and a half. So why can’t the electrical test equipment used to teach it be of older vintage? I put Lord Maxwell aside and dug deeper into the question from the perspective of the university, the students, and the parents. Here are my thoughts.

University perspective

There are pros and cons. On the negative side, the funds to provision new equipment in the laboratory could be spent on libraries, IT, sports, and other priorities. University management may point to lower levels of electrical engineering enrollment as reason to reduce budgets rather than invest. This may reinforce a downward spiral in electrical engineering enrollment as top students won’t be drawn to a field of study that has appearances, based on the labs, as old and static. Additionally, the introduction of new equipment may require changes in the teaching curriculum set up more than a decade ago. 
On the pro side of the equation, equipping labs with new affordable, but high-value industry-grade instruments1,2 will entice students. It sends a message that the administration values the engineering program and students enough to support modern laboratories. This helps with student retention as they don’t have to leave their major to play with cool new technology. Modern equipment also brings in capabilities in data visualization, analytics, and new remote access features. Remote access affords students who are ill or otherwise can’t come to the lab, or distant learning students, the opportunity to conduct electrical experiments across the internet from their computers. They can measure a circuit and tinker with it using remote control to substitute different circuit components and compare with model predictions. New equipment also has features such as convenient stacking and allows lab managers to check the functional status and set the configuration to a desired state at the beginning of the lab. This reduces experiment setup time and frustration. Modern well-equipped labs are a university asset and motivate students to stay with the institution.


Students performing experiments at Harvey Mudd College's new Makerspace. Photo courtesy of Harvey Mudd College.


Student perspective

 They’re excited and eager to move into a program that’s energizing and moving forward. Particularly, given the difficulty of the electrical engineering major with all its abstractness and theory, the first year is critical. Consigning them to a lab with old equipment sends the wrong message. Students talk, and no doubt messages get sent to the next generation of students on the condition of the university labs, especially if outdated. This is not helpful when students are considering a transfer to majors that have the appearance of being more contemporary with modern facilities and all the sparkles technology innovation brings. While it’s true that old test gear, with its 3 ½ inch floppy discs can record accurate measurements, it drives student perception that the course of study they’re embarking on is stagnant. This again may push them to leap into a major with a modern flare. Importantly, students will be more engaged knowing they’re learning with similar equipment that they’ll encounter in industry—that they’ll become industry-ready. This gives them more confidence in job interviews, faster starts in summer internships, and provides readiness to contribute on job day one.

Parent perspective

They’re a bit nervous as they send their kids off to school. With tuition costs, some north of $50,000 per year, over 4 years they may well spend anywhere from $40,000 to $300,000. So, they’ll expect universities to invest in facilities that support their kids’ education, teach with modern equipment, and make them ready for employment. They’re hopeful that their sons and daughters will stay with the program and graduate. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that they prefer their kids be trained on modern industry tools to allow them to transition and contribute quickly in summer internships or regular jobs. No doubt, when they visit the schools, they’ll walk away with a more positive view when shown the modern laboratories their kids are using.


Bottom Line

 Ultimately the decision to refresh a lab rests with the university administration under recommendation from the lab manager or professor. I feel that updating the on-going teaching lab every 4 – 8 years is usually adequate (roughly once per ABET cycle). It allows the lab to stay reasonably modern while making effective use of the investment. In the meantime, paint the walls, get good lighting overhead, and provide some open space as the days of the grungy lab are over. Ensure there are interesting and relevant experimental projects early in the EE lab curriculum to snare student attention. Support outreach for future students. Visits to the lab during university open houses by secondary school students will expose them to the fun adventurous world of electrical engineering and promote future enrollment. It will also signal to the parents that the program is moving forward and a worthwhile investment.