Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
Electrical and Computer Engineering
A UA professor hopes the little plastic boxes can get middle school students interested in engineering.
While Sputnik-generation engineering graduates are retiring by the thousands, the National Academy of Sciences estimates only 6 percent of today’s undergraduates are engineering majors.
The resulting “engineering gap” – with far fewer engineers available to replace those who are retiring – could cause America to fall behind in technology development, and bring disastrous economic consequences.
Closing the gap is not impossible, but the question is: “How do we interest more students in math and science?”
Part of the answer might be a series of small, plastic boxes that were strewn across Susan Lysecky’s desk the other day at The University of Arizona.
Lysecky, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, known as ECE, hopes these “eBlocks” will show today’s middle school students that science and math are not only worth studying – but actually fun and exciting.
Each box contains a single electronic system – a sensor (light or motion, for instance), switch, speaker, light-emitting diode, digital display, buzzer, electrical relay or other component. Each box is a system, rather than a simple component, because computer intelligence has been added to each circuit. This intelligence lets the boxes “talk” when they’re hooked together, allowing them to accomplish complex tasks.
Students can use the blocks to create alarms, doorbells, light-activated switches and other systems, or test equipment for lab experiments. These projects give them the hands-on, applications-oriented side of math and science that is sometimes considered lacking in K-12 math and science education.
The Key to Inexpensive Labs
Unlike some robotics kits or other lab equipment that costs hundreds of dollars, eBlocks are inexpensive and can provide lab experiences for the many middle schools that can’t afford dedicated science labs, Lysecky said.
That’s important, she said, because middle schools are the battleground where the war on America’s engineering gap will be won or lost. Students often drop out of technical classes after middle school, making it difficult for them to catch up if they choose to pursue math or science in college.
Lysecky hopes the eBlocks will turn abstract concepts into hands-on fun, giving students a reason to stay with these subjects in high school.
Labs are critical to science education because they make concepts come alive, Lysecky said. “I know when I was in science class, the experiments we did, such as measuring the circumference of a circle to test the accuracy of our calculations, are the ones I remember most. That circle measuring we did 20 years ago, I remember to this day.”
“Hopefully, the eBlocks can provide the same kind of experiences for today’s students,” she added.
The blocks can be hooked together to perform experiments such as testing the effects of moisture and temperature on mold growth or comparing the freezing point of fresh water versus salt water, for instance.
eBlocks Make Concepts Real
“Just because a student has memorized a concept from the textbook doesn’t mean they have internalized it and really know how it works,” Lysecky said. “But actually testing concepts and getting involved in problem solving makes the classwork real. Students begin to understand how things work and see real-world applications for what they’re learning.”
The eBlocks already have been tested by non-engineering undergraduates who are studying history, dance, business and other non-technical majors. More than half the testers were able to build three eBlock systems in less than 10 minutes, Lysecky said. It would take engineering undergrads days or weeks to design and build similar systems from scratch.
Lysecky and ECE graduate student Anuradha Phalke already have made changes in the project as a result of this testing.
“We want to keep this as non-jargon, non-threatening, and understandable as possible,” Lysecky said.
“Basically we have a microprocessor inside each of these eBlocks, but the user doesn’t have to know anything about that or about electronics to use them,” she said.
In fact, the blocks were originally developed as components for monitor/control systems that the average do-it-yourselfer could install in their home or office. But the blocks’ educational possibilities soon became apparent, and Lysecky decided that aspect of the work was far more important.
Middle School Testing
The eBlocks soon will be tested in a Tucson middle school.
"We’re really excited to go out and see if this actually works the way we think it will,” Lysecky said. “We’ve done the initial testing here, but just because my graduate students understand it doesn’t mean that middle schoolers are going to understand it.”
Lysecky is working with faculty in the UA College of Education to design experiments and tests to see how well eBlocks contribute to learning. Eventually, she hopes middle school students will devise their own experiments and share their designs and experiences on an eBlock Web site.
Currently, Phalke is building and repairing all the eBlocks. Once the program goes to several schools, provisions need to be made for producing many more of the black boxes. One solution would be to make the circuit diagrams and instructions available along with a list of parts. That way, electronics hobbyists could get involved in building eBlocks for schools.
Most middle school students don’t see the value of math and science in terms of career fulfillment or financial success, Lysecky said. And it becomes very tempting to opt out of math and science in high school.
“We hope that through eBlocks they’ll see that engineering is not just equations and abstract concepts, but very practical, challenging and fun,” Lysecky said. “If we can make it fun to begin with, maybe science and math will be something they enjoy and will want to pursue in high school and later on in college.”
Electrical and Computer Engineering