In this episode, our guests are Engineer Matthew Post and Electronics Technician Leland Harker from the Electronics and Technology Group (ETG) in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) at Iowa State University (ISU). Here, we talk about ETG and its vital role in supporting student learning by providing a wide variety of computing and electronic resources in the teaching labs, research labs, and for senior design projects. This episode was conceptualized, recorded, and produced by Santosh Pandey from Iowa State University. The audio editing was done was Ankita, while the transcript was prepared by Yunsoo Park and Richa Pathak from the ISU ECpE Department. The communications and digital hosting was handled by Kristin Clague from the ISU ECpE Department. The music was provided by Ivymusic from Pixabay (Track Title: Easy Soft Background).
Welcome to our ECpE podcast series where we talk about exciting activities within our department. I'm your host Santosh Pandey. Our guests today are Matthew Post and Leland Harker from the Electronic Technology Group within Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. Matt and Lee, thank you so much for coming here today. Today, we want to talk about resources within the department that are available for students to further their education and research.To start with, could you briefly describe what Electronic Technology Group is all about? The Electronic Technology Group is a group of staff members and also part-time students that work together. It's semi divided into two halves. One being the IT group that maintains software, software licensing and computer setup and so forth for the staff and the faculty. The electronic side of the group takes care of maintaining test equipment, creating equipment for classrooms and for research groups, and to support the students with the kits that they use in their classes and also to support the Senior Design teams when they're working on their projects and so forth. So, is the Electronic Technology Group located within Coover hall? Yes, our location is 1331 Coover hall. We are right near the west entrance, near the staircase. So, what would be the best way for students to approach ETG and ask for help? They can do two different possible ways. One is they can email to us at email@example.com, and post their question that way. If it's an immediate need, they can certainly just walk in the shop anytime between the hours of 8 and 4 o'clock most days, Monday through Thursday. They can come in until 8 o'clock and post their question to us and we can help them with what their needs are. Right. So, I understand ETG plays a vital role in maintaining the teaching labs and innovating the new equipment and resources that are available in the teaching labs. Could you elaborate a little bit on that, both on the software labs as well as the electronic labs? Yes. So, that is kind of my main duty here is to not only maintain our teaching labs, but to be constantly upgrading them because in ECpE it's So one great example here is as a student, I was taking our Embedded Systems class, which has a very, very hands-on component for the laboratory, but honestly, most of the classes just based around the laboratory. So at that time we were running off very old microcontrollers. We have upgraded it to an Arm processor now running off 32 bit and then we've upgraded the platform as well to a iRobot create 2, that allows the students to build up their skills on the edited systems programming. And then for their final project, they actually do like a Mars Rover where they blindly navigate to a landing zone, avoiding obstacles and successfully navigating the course. So, a lot of our time has been spent improving that lab. And along the electrical engineering side of things, we're upgrading our Signals and Systems curriculum laboratories to interface with a new data acquisition device that allows students to get their hands on real world signals and systems, instead simulating everything in MATLAB and SimuLink. So, what is the response that you get from students who participate in this lab? So, we recently just started running what we call the CYDAQs labs for EE 224 and the feedback we've been getting is really good that they're actually getting to do hands-on stuff. Because you do a lot of really complex mathematics in the class, but you can actually sit down and see the results of the math and it works out precisely as you would expect it. So, how long does it roughly take for you to plan the process of upgrading a lab and actually having it delivered to students where they actually use it? That particular project was a really good experience because we had a lot of undergrad students that had previously taken the course working on developing the new hardware and laboratory curriculum. So, a lot of our upgrades are very based off student input and feedback. So, is there a teaching assistant or are there multiple teaching assistants? Yeah, every one of our laboratories has multiple teaching assistants participate in every lab. There'll be a variety of grad students that have very theoretical based. And then there is undergrad students that have excelled in the class and are now TA in the class. So, that kind of positive mentorship from students who have taken the course previously, that actually helps? Yeah. A lot of the feedback we hear from students are the TAs that have taken the class and really do know the lab well. Is there a technology fee that is expected from students when they participate in this lab? For sure. We've pride ourselves in having very up to date labs, hands-on labs. And, to have the kind of equipment that we have in our laboratories and to maintain it, we do have course fees for a lot of our undergrad circuit labs, and then some of the higher 400 level classes that do like semiconductor manufacturing, microwave design. And we also have a kind of electronics design course, EE 333 that allows students to not only design a printed circuit board, but then they get it populate it and learn how to solder as well. Right, that is very popular course recently among students, EE 333. Yes. This semester, I believe they did three different printed circuit boards with various through-hole, and then surface mount design projects. And then they, I believe their last and then their final project, they kind of get to pick their own design and within a certain budget level, they get to keep the design when they're done. So, that's great. This was about the software teaching labs. What is equivalent on the other side on the electronic teaching labs or the electrical engineering teaching labs like EE 201 and EE 230? Yeah. So EE 201 is the first chance our electrical engineering students have to actually get their, our hands on circuit curriculum. And we are, again, like I mentioned, very proud of our hands-on and our laboratory. We have test equipment that is not only industry level, it is better than a lot of industry level equipment. Every bench is equipped with a four channel 250 MHz oscilloscope, triple output power supply, function generator, 6 and a half digit multimeters. And then there's soldering equipment available in the interested in it. And one of the best things about our laboratories is they're open 24/7, 365 days a year. Our students have 24/7 access to the building and they can come in and work outside of class anytime they like. And we are always here to help them as well too in the Electronics Technology Group. That's great. So, I guess during the pandemic era, most of the labs had switched to the virtual mode. So, did you face challenges, especially with the teaching labs? Yeah, the pandemic really presented an interesting challenge. At first, I think a lot of it was being done through Spice simulation, and it's, again, we pride ourselves on being very hands on and simulation is only part of the learning triangle. So, what we were able to do over the course of the summer, and then that Fall was to provide online kits for some of the students, we used the digital analog discovery tools, and then ship to small kit to them where they were able to perform some experiments at home. But not probably quite the level that you would get on a normal semester. So, do you think now we are back to face to face instruction and do you think the labs are now more hands-on? Yeah, I believe we are getting back to where we were before. So, all these 200 level courses and 300 level courses, the population of students is quite large. Right? So, I understand the workload would be tremendous for the Electronic Technology Group as such. Part of my job is to making sure I don't have to do a tremendous amount of work by keeping the labs very up to date, well maintained. And then on that note of having a large student population, our labs become very full and occupied at most times of the day. So, we've actually created an overflow lab space in Coover. It's 1313, which is also known as the TLA - Transformative Learning Area. This space has 12 electronic benches with the exact same equipment you'll find in your circuits labs and, along with all the other hardware based labs. So, students can come in anytime in a day that their lab is occupied and be able to complete their experiments on those benches. And then for the computer engineering and software engineering side, we have all the same software and everything installed 30 plus computers in the TLA along with 12 Linux machines. So, this is a great space for students to gather, work with each other, and be able to learn from each other. Is the TLA also one of the places that needs to be maintained and upgraded time to time? Yeah, we are constantly looking for ways to upgrade our labs. So, this year we invested in upgrading the furniture, the flooring. We've added power at all the desks for the students. With all these facilities that we have, and we have the abilities to make different printed circuit boards and test different circuits. Do you think we have the infrastructure to attract students from other departments within Iowa State? Based on our size and the equipment we have in our laboratory, we're competitive with every other department in the nation. There's no reason why you can't achieve what you can here anywhere else. So, do students from other departments such as Material Science and Chemical Engineering, do they come to ETG to ask for help to design circuits and to help them test something? Yeah, we do get quite a few visitors, especially from other engineering departments. Sometimes students from Civil Engineering will come over and ask us how to use sensors in maybe testing, say some bridge material for freezing conditions, that kind of thing. We'll get Industrial Engineering students coming here, occasionally asking us for help on their circuitry and Mechanical Engineering also realizes that even though their designs are generally mechanical, nearly everything nowadays has some sort of microprocessor, or other electronics device in it. And I think that probably the most diverse example we had is we had a student come over here from the Fabrics that might not be the correct name for it, but the department where they work on clothing and so forth, the student was making a dress that was gonna go in the annual fashion show. And they wanted to put some electroluminescent And so they had the material, but they didn't know how to make it, make it electrified and for it. So we gave them some advice on how to get that to happen. And so, yeah, we get. Wherever there's electronics involved in something else across disciplines, they tend to show up here and ask us, how do we make this happen? They know it can happen. They just don't know exactly how to get it to happen. And so we, we walk them through those step. On that same note, we definitely use quite a bit of the resources that are there in the machine shop. So, could you tell me some of the new things that we have in the machine shop? Yes, we do have the machine shop that's, mostly directed towards Senior Design student projects. But also it's used by the research groups of various types. And then we also use it for supporting our own uses here in the ETG as well. And so we have the basic tools that most people would find in the shop. We have all the hand tools, we have band saw, drill presses, abrasive blaster, and we have a CNC mill, which kind of needs special training to use that. The average person can't walk off the street and just know how to use that. We also do have a 3D printer and various types of filament to go into that which people can use. And so it kind of bridges the gap across disciplines as well, between the mechanical to the electronics. And so students can make parts out of aluminum, steel, wood, plastics, and so forth. And I think many students are surprised to find that the electronics they build it has to have a home somewhere. And so we help them try to get that to happen. So, if I'm a student and I want to design and build 3D model of some tool, can I come and approach you? Can I send an email to ETG? Yes, that's a really good way to do it. If a student has an idea of something that they want to have made, one of the first things that would be good to do have them just come in and have a little 5 minute, 10 minute conversation with us. Sometimes what the student is looking for is maybe something that already exists. They can just buy it right off the shelf for a few bucks. Sometimes it's customized and we can help them figure out how to customize it. It also gives them the opportunity to learn how to use a 3D modeling software such as SolidWorks, Inventor Fusion 360, to bridge that gap between electronics and the real world too. So, that's helpful for them as well. Right, from my personal experience, I have seen that having open discussions, what design do you want and is that design practical or is it too ambitious - that I think is the critical part of the whole process flow, right? Yes, that's true. A lot of times, the student will know kind of which way they're going to go, but they don't exactly know which, which way to get going there. So, we can give them the, the foundation of what they might wanna do and how to take the different steps to get to that result. And also we tend to advise them to other locations on campus, where they can get specialized functionality as well. Like for example, we do quite a bit of laser cutting of acrylics and so forth, which can be done in the design building. And now soon to come, we'll be at the Student Innovation Center. There's also across the street from us in the BRL, there is a water jet cutter which can be used on different materials as well to help get the parts that are needed for the projects. That's great. Coming to the Senior Design projects, that is a little bit more complicated because there is a structure that needs to be followed through two semesters. How does ETG help with their resources for Senior Design projects? One of the main and things that we do for them is we maintain stock of quite a few different electronics components that they might need to use. We have the general stock that's used for 201, 230 and 333 classes that we, generally stock at all times. Plus we also have quite a bit of other things that we, we just through experience, we know that the students are likely to want to need for their projects. And then if there's something that they need that we don't have in our stock, then we can find a supplier for that and get that for them. Each one of the Senior Design teams has a, there's also a class fee for that. And so from that budget, and then if there's any additional budget coming from the sponsors of the project, that can be used for the materials that they Yeah. And to add that we also have a dedicated lab space for the Senior Design students that only they have access to. And inside there, we have not only the test equipment that you would find in all our laboratories, more, higher-end equipment that they can use, along with space to store their projects and work on their projects as well. As you know, software projects are involving a lot of what kind of resources are available through ETG for, let's say cloud computing or data storage? Yeah, so we have a whole another section of ETG that's dedicated solely to IT. And then we have staff members, a subset of that that are dedicated to just maintaining server space, whether it be Windows, Linux, or any other flavor of operating systems. So, students can come in and request VMs. They can come in and request cloud computing if needed. And we have a whole group that can help them with those needs as well. Is there a fees to have access to these resources? No. Everything again is provided to these students for their learning. So, our Cyber Security major has a whole dedicated infrastructure just for their courses as well. And then we can kind of be flexible and dedicate out resources that's needed from that. Okay. So, one question back to Lee. For students in Electrical Engineering, there's no course that teaches what are the commercial chips that are available in the market? Who are the manufacturers? Is that a self learning process? Mostly it is a self learning process. The best thing I would recommend for students that want to stay up to date on the latest technology is to read magazine articles and, online magazine articles about things that are happening in the world. And it's going to, it's going to change depending on what the student's, focus is on. If their focus is in maybe the electronics that goes with chemistry, then they would read maybe, one magazine type for that. They wanna read what technology is going on in automobile industry, then they would read about that kind of thing. And so it kind of, it's kind of directed towards the area of that person's focus. Another thing I tend to do it it's, I must be mostly be considered boring to the average person is just leaf through catalogs that come in the mail every now. You can look at the suppliers' websites like Digi-Key, for example. They have quite a few, quite a few help articles right on their website which you can go through and look at. They'll have, maybe it'll be focused on, maybe chips that are for communication with microprocessors. There may be a focus on one of the forums for radio type chips. There could be a focus on motor driver chips or a voltage regulator kind of chips. And so I, I like to occasionally just leaf through the websites of the companies that we tend to get parts from quite a bit. And I'll give you kind of an idea of which ones those would be. They'd be Digi-Key electronics, Mouser electronics, Newark electronics. We deal with SparkFun electronics as well. Adafruit electronics is a good one. And then, we get our hardware type devices from Grainger and from McMaster-Carr. So by looking through those different sources and having a good methodology for your search, you can find a lot of things that way. Of those, the ones that are CyBuy contract vendors would be Digi-Key electronics, Newark electronics, Grainger. And so those, those would be our major ones that are the CyBuy contractors. But when the students need parts, if we can find them through the contract suppliers, that's how we go. If we have to go a different direction, we can still do that as well. Right. So, on a related note, you know, the chip supplies are in such shortage. So, I may have the best list of the chips that I want for my project, but if I go somewhere, it is very hard to find and there's like back orders. So, what do you suggest in those cases? Yeah, that does happen quite a bit. It's been happening for the last six months, and I don't think it's gonna go away for another six months to a year. What I think the students probably should do with their projects is leave themselves a little bit of flexibility room. Maybe they want a certain processor, but they can't get that one. Maybe it comes in a different package type, or maybe it comes in a different form, maybe from a different manufacturer. They might be able to say, they're planning on using an Arduino, but maybe they could use a Raspberry Pi or a different kind of processor for their job. So, it's a really good idea for the students to be aware when they are looking for their parts at the supplier, take a look at that quantity that they have available in the delivery times to make sure that they're not picking a part that is not gonna make it to them in time. So, the Electronic Technology Group also supports some Senior Design projects every year. Could you talk a little bit about what projects ETG Supports? Well, in the past we have proposed projects for - We had a checkout locker system that we proposed that was operated. There was a room temperature controller. Since a lot of our building is old steam heat, and the only way you can control it is by turning the valve closed or open whichever way the season dictates. And we were going to try to retrofit that, so it could be controlled by a thermostat. And then there was projects that Matt was involved in as well. I'll have him talk about the ones he was involved in. Yeah. My focus is mainly on the teaching labs. A lot of the projects I work on are coordinated with faculty. So, one of the more recent ones I've worked on was kind of a code verification for our embedded systems class, where we went through and did continuous integration testing, making sure that our code base was very solid and there wasn't any bugs that were, kind of hiding in the background there. And out of that, we actually got a very great project that was induced by the pandemic. Again, that lab is very hands-on and focused. There was no way the students get in there and actually interface with the robots. So, a student out of this senior design project came up with a way to emulate the robot. And then we actually built a little printed circuit TI launch pads that they interface with one acting like the robot, and then one acting like the launchpad they normally program. And then he was able to whip up a graphical user that kind of simulated the course environment that the robot lives in. And we used that over the course of the pandemic. The feedback from the students was good. The feedback from the faculty was, it was almost too easy. Because they are not dealing with the real life issues they find when interfacing with hardware. So , we were actually able to take that and integrate it into the course where they can now simulate their code before actually putting it on the platform and making sure they're not gonna do physical harm to the robot. We also had the CyDAQ project was kind of finalized through a Senior Design group. It actually took the best project for the semester there. And, out of that, they sprang a new kind of controls project for one of the upper level classes, which is kind of a set point balance beam that will allow a user to put in an input and get the balance beam to move a ball to that direct setting. And through that, they designed a PID controller to implement this. Could you briefly talk about the VLSI teaching lab that is used in, let's say EE 330? Yeah. So we have a VLSI teaching lab. In that, their main lab experience is through a software called Cadence, very, very high industry level, piece of software that a lot of companies can't even afford. So, in that, they go down to the actual transistor level design and are able to design transistors in their labs. And then there also is a hardware portion of the course where we have a very high end semiconductor parameter analyzer, where they're able to extract I-V curves and different characteristics of semiconductors. So, all these circuit design software are priced possessions. They're very expensive for individual purchase or subscription, but they're offered to our students from the department. Could you comment on that? Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up because I was gonna mention that earlier. That's one of the better benefits of being a student here is that you have access to a wealth of software through the college IT departments such as MATLAB, as you mentioned, Autodesk, SOLIDWORKS, Cadence and various other CAD kind of design tools. National instruments, NI? Yeah. National Instruments. There's also some very, high level solvers and stuff like that available too. Different kind of electromagnetic simulation software as well. And we also have virtual desktop environments where from their house and then be put into the exact same type of lab environment they would be here. So our students have 24/7 access to what is called their U drive as well. So they can have access to their files and everything virtually. Are there resources available for graduate students? And let's say particularly graduate students who are pursuing online degree programs. Yeah. So we have, like I mentioned our virtual desktop environment. And then, we do have staff here that are dedicated to helping grad students in particular with their software computing needs. So, we are fully capable of supporting online students as well. I think the best part is all the resources are there to help student training and student education. Where are some of the companies that you see are students graduating and getting hired into? So recently. I can just speak on behalf of students that have worked here in the Electronics Technology Group. The last batch of students we sent off are currently at Texas Instruments, Garmin, Tesla, Minitronics, and then, formerly Rockwell Collins. I believe they are owned by Raytheon now. So, yeah, our students are recruited by some of the largest competitors in the ECE kind of market. Do the graduated students come back to appreciate your work and say, thank you for all your help. I actually kind of constantly reach out to our students and try to get them to, even come back just for an afternoon as something like that and interface with our younger students to, kind of show them the potential of what their degree has to offer. That's great. As I know, ETG also hosts workshops and seminars for students. Could you elaborate on these activities for student engagement? From ETG standpoint, we do a couple of them. We do soldering seminar every semester. So ,students can learn how to do soldering. We have various kinds of little kits that they can put together. Some of them through-hole, some surface mount. But then also some of the student groups, like IEEE and so forth, will create seminars as well to do maybe some software training. There was some on how to do audio music, make music out of electronics components and robotics and so forth like that. So, a lot of those seminars are actually handled by the student groups themselves, which is kind of, nice to see. It's nice to see them, you know, taking shape of their education that way. Yes. I know there are several IEEE clubs for our students. Yeah. We actually have quite a few clubs available to our students. Critical Tinkers is a really good club for anybody kind of, as the name sounds, it likes to tinker around with electronics. They will fully fund your projects for you. You just kind of are required to be really interactive with the group. They meet weekly. And then another one of our major groups, which is multidisciplinary, is the PrISUm solar car team. We sponsor the electronic team in our department here and they literally build a solar car every year and then go out and race it as the ultimate goal, if it can pass inspection and everything like that. And then we also have our Eta Kappa Nu society, which is known nationally for their work and accomplishments in philanthropy and outreach. And they also host a help room, I believe a couple of times a week for undergrad students to come get help in their courses as well, too. Well. That's great. That's fantastic. I think we covered all the questions that I had in mind. I would just say, thank you. Thank you to both of you for showing up and, discussing all these things. I think there's so much information in this discussion we had today that will be valuable for our students. Yeah. Great. You're welcome. Thanks for having us here. Thank you!