WWU's Andy Klein Secures $447,000 Grant from the Office of Naval Research to Study New Ways to Teach Key Concepts of Electrical Engineering

John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing

Western Washington University's Andy Klein has secured a three-year, $447,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to investigate new and innovative ways to teach key concepts of electrical engineering.

Klein said he was inspired by the makerspace movement to apply for the grant; makerspaces are areas where communities of informal builders and tinkerers can work on their projects without the need for their own machinery and tools. It is this spirit of self-motivated tinkering and hands-on work that Klein said he will focus on with the grant. In addition, Klein plans to combine this approach with so-called “game-centered curricula,” or the use of game-design elements as an educational tool.

“You see this ‘maker ethos’ working together quite naturally with `gaming’ in activities like hackathons and robotics competitions,” Klein said. “I’ll be bringing these elements into the engineering classroom and I’m hopeful that this will motivate them and provide a foundation for deeper learning of the theory.”

Klein said he will test this approach in three classes, all of which focus on signals and radios. Klein explained that a signal is anything that varies over time: temperatures recorded over the course of a day, the electrical activity of the heart, the ebb and flow of data over a cellular or wifi network. Signal processing is the means of extracting data from that signal; for example, turning the electronic current that comes into your phone into a voice you can hear and then send back via the same processing method.

“So much of what we traditionally assign students to do in the lab is very procedural. I’m going to take these concepts of tinkering and gamification and turn the classroom and lab into a design-centered studio much like a makerspace. I will pose problems around signal processing that they can’t initially solve with equations on a whiteboard – they are going to have to build, and modify, and tinker to solve them. Hopefully, this will motivate the equations and theory which come later,” Klein said. 

For example, Klein said one exercise will involve asking his students to build an acoustic radio that will reliably transmit the largest possible amount of data; the students will need to understand how to maximize their data rate while potentially blocking or hindering other students who are transmitting at the same time. Then, motivated by his interest in cooperative board games, he will flip the concept and ask them to work cooperatively to get the most data flowing through that same amount of frequency bandwidth.

Another exercise will ask the students to build an antenna array that can sniff out wireless signals at a certain frequency – such as those used by the city’s natural-gas meters. 

“We tried this and the students loved it,” he said. “They had to rig up and build these antennas and then the competition was to see who could sit their antenna out on the PAC Plaza and gather the most meter readings from South Hill. They needed to implement theory as well as hands-on work to succeed, which is a primary focus of this grant.”

Klein will be sharing results with his collaborator on the grant, Professor Rick Martin at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio. Martin will be putting these same practices into place with his graduate students.

“We aim to show how these concepts influence learning. If the results are encouraging, we hope more folks can put them into place in their classrooms,” Klein said.

He also said he would enlist two of his peers at Western, Dan Hanley and Joe Brobst from the Science, Math and Technology Education (SMATE) program, to help him test the effectiveness of the proposed learning and teaching approaches and evaluate where it was most successful.

Klein, an assistant professor in the Engineering and Design Department, has taught at Western for a year; prior to moving to Bellingham he was a faculty member at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and a master’s degree in the same field from the University of California at Berkeley.

For more information on this grant or its planned application in the classroom, contact Andy Klein at (360) 650-2709 or andy.klein@wwu.edu.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 - 10:38am