Penn Engineering Intro Class Gets a Power Boost

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Media Contact:Evan Lerner | elerner@upenn.edu | 215-573-6604October 14, 2013

As computers become more enmeshed in everyday life, both their software and hardware are becoming accessible to the average person. Whereas do-it-yourself enthusiasts of earlier generations tackled birdhouses and AM radios, this generation is making its own robots, 3-D printers and cell phone accessories.

Knowing that incoming freshmen are ready to hit the ground running in this arena, Dan Lee, professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s GRASP lab, and Siddharth Deliwala, ESE’s undergraduate lab manager, are rolling out a new introductory course this year. Named for the ABCS of electrical and systems engineering — Atoms, Bits, Circuits and Systems — it stretches the gamut from matter’s smallest scales to information’s global networks.      

“We start with how silicon atoms transport electrons and how they can be ‘doped’ to make semiconductors,” Lee said. “From there, we see how those semiconductors are used to make transistors, resistors and capacitors and how those components come together to make circuits. Then, these circuits are integrated with sensors and digital logic, enabling signal processing and computation.  Then at the next level, you have many such systems talking to each other through communications and networking protocols.  Finally, these global scale networks enable new applications, such as cloud computing.”

With nothing less than the entire spectrum of electronic technology to cover in a semester, Lee and Deliwala focus on getting students’ hands dirty as soon as possible.  Much of the hands-on projects in ABCS revolve around Arduino circuit boards. Arduino is an open-source hardware development environment that gives students, hobbyists and professionals alike access to simple and customizable platforms for their electronics projects.

This year, those projects will be enhanced through a partnership with Intel. At this year’s Maker Faire in Rome, Intel announced a collaboration with Arduino and 17 universities around the world. As one of two United States partner institutions, Penn will receive Intel’s new Galileo development boards in exchange for developing curricula and projects around these Arduino-compatible platforms.

The Galileo boards will be a good match for a popular project that Lee and Deliwala ran in an earlier incarnation of their introductory ESE course: pedometers that incorporate the latest sensors and networking. In addition to building the devices, students were charged with developing novel commercial applications for them, such as tracking a stolen bicycle or dynamically selecting music to match a runner’s pace. 

The Galileo board will give ABCS students the ability to do much more.

“This technology is ideally meant for wearable computing,” Deliwala said. “The board uses very little power but has a fast processor and a built-in network that has everything you need to scale up. That’s important as one of the main concepts we teach in the lab is how the Arduino board talks to sensors, accelerometers in the case of our pedometers, and we can swap in these Galileo boards and have them work right out of the box.”

“This is Intel’s way of getting a very powerful but accessible platform into the hands of freshmen and getting them to start thinking about what kinds of things to build, said George Pappas, chair of the ESE department. “This course is an ideal place for it because it was already designed around boards that the Galileo is compatible with, with the goal very much centered on rapid prototyping and development.

“If there’s one thing the students can do, it’s to learn very quickly that they can use the board, program it and think about wearable computing projects with an entrepreneurial angle,” he said.

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