In 1992, Jeffery L. Gray, associate professor of electrical engineering at Purdue, received a three-year, $390,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new teaching methods to improve students' ability to learn basic science and mathematics.
Today, more than half-way through the grant, Gray and his colleagues have developed several new products and projects to help students studying two difficult areas of engineering -- solid state devices and power flow control.
Under their grant, titled "An Integrated Undergraduate Program on Semiconductor Devices for Power Flow Control," Gray and electrical engineering Professors Gerald T. Heydt, Gerold W. Neudeck and Chee-Mun Ong have developed materials to benefit more than just electrical engineering students.
"The idea for the grant was to see if we could improve cross-disciplinary education in the areas of solid state devices and power flow control," Gray explains. "But some of these approaches can be used to improve students' understanding in other areas of science and math."
Gray was invited by the National Science Foundation to a national conference this past summer in Washington, D.C., where he shared his group's ideas with more than 250 innovators in undergraduate education. The conference brought together college and university faculty from science, mathematics and engineering.
Gray says courses in solid state devices and power control traditionally are taught separately, but students studying one area need to learn something about the other.
"The power area deals with controlling large amounts of power, from electric vehicles to electric utilities," he says. "Solid state devices are used in power flow control, and just about every other area of electrical engineering.
"We wanted students in the power area to have at least some idea of how the controlling devices they use operate. Similarly, if the solid state students know what some of the applications of their devices are, they might be able to design better devices."
Here are three techniques Gray and his colleagues are using to integrate these two areas:
"Solid state devices are very complicated," Gray explains. "I'm developing a simplified version on the computer that students can use as a study aid to get a better conceptual idea of how the device operates, like using a microscope to see inside the device. Students will be able to take this software home and play around with it a little, change parameters to see how design modifications affect the device. This should give the students better insights into design considerations."
Gray says the software will be designed to use in conjunction with other class materials.
"I envision textbooks where computer software is an integral part of the material, with real-world applications and demonstrations of physical and mathematical concepts," he says. "I think students in science and math would find this approach helpful in learning new concepts."
"Designing and building a solar-powered car provides a unique opportunity to integrate the solid state and power areas," Gray says. "Without the wheels and motor, a solar vehicle is basically a set of electronic devices that control a lot of electric power, in this case, power coming from the sun."
The devices that provide power in a solar vehicle, the solar cells, are solid state devices that convert sunlight into electricity.
"Power students are interested in how the power is controlled, while solid state students are interested in how to make a better solar cell," Gray says. "It's a realistic system that really shows the students an area where it's obvious power engineers and solid state engineers need to work together.
"As the students work together, they naturally learn about each other's areas. I think it's a good approach, when they learn without really being aware they're learning. It works better than trying to hammer them over the head with information."
"The idea is to give power engineering students a module, maybe a couple of class sessions, on how a solid state device they've been using or studying actually works," Gray says. "It would be a little simpler than material for the solid state students. Once fully developed, we'll make the notes available for other universities to insert into a course without having to make drastic changes in curriculum."
Gray took a draft of the notes with him to the conference in Washington.
Other projects Gray's team is working on include a new class at Purdue devoted to power electronics, and videotapes demonstrating how to use laboratory equipment and conduct various experiments. Next summer, Gray and his colleagues will sponsor a workshop to present the materials they have developed to other academics.
"Undergraduate education is always changing, and it's up to the educators to keep up with the changing needs of students," Gray said. "Hopefully our efforts at Purdue will make an impact."
Sources: Jeffery Gray, (765( 494-3478; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Ann McNeal, Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation, (703) 306-1666
Writer: Amanda Siegfried, (765( 494-4709; Internet, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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