Connecting theory and practice: Laboratory-based explorations of the NAE Grand Challenges
This paper describes a pilot project, conducted during the Fall 2010 semester, that incorporated laboratory exercises inspired by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges into an introductory digital signal processing course. The Challenges were broadly interpreted and local expertise and resources were used to enhance the experience. In one project, students investigated environmental sensors in the local "SmartHome" and followed up by analyzing actual solar and electrical energy usage data. In another project, students learned about the process of collecting and analyzing electroencephalography data in a local neuroscience research laboratory. Basing these projects on the Grand Challenges - while integrating local researchers and technical experts - provided a societal context and supported deeper investigation by interested students. The pilot study assessed effects of the new laboratory activities on three outcomes: improving student understanding of course material, increasing student interest in the course material and topic area, and broadening students' perspective on applications of signal processing and the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations. Our assessment used a mixed-method approach, relying on both qualitative measurements (e.g., surveys of student opinions) and quantitative data (e.g., course performance). Baseline data (e.g., student surveys) were available from previous years for comparison. Students reported that the projects positively contributed to their understanding of course material. We also found that students' awareness of the Grand Challenges and the role that signal processing can have in finding solutions increased. A number of students indicated that they plan to pursue more in-depth projects inspired by what they learned during the laboratory. © 2011 American Society for Engineering Education.
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