Thursday, April 21, 2016

Amateur Radio in Education

This article references a panel session and amateur radio social that will occur on May 24th at IEEE's International Microwave Symposium (IMS2016) in San Francisco CA.  Tickets for IMS2016 may be purchased online:

Copyright notice: This article originally appeared in IEEE Microwaves Magazine, April 2016.  Authors: David Witkowski (W6DTW) and Suresh Ojha (W6KTM).  Download a PDF copy of the original.

Much has been said in recent years about the need for increased focus on scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States.  It’s argued that compared with students from other countries, U.S. students perform less well on tests; moreover, they often don’t fare well when competing with foreign students and immigrants for college admissions and jobs.

While there are counter arguments that a hyper-disciplined focus on math and science isn’t healthy, the obvious increase in foreign STEM students at major universities has led to calls for a shift in focus in U.S. primary and secondary education from trades and general education to college prep – specifically, prep for STEM degrees.

International student admission to University of California increased by 33% from 2013 to 2015
(Source: University of California & LA Times)

Shifting Educational Values

In making the shift from trades and general education, secondary schools in the United States have stopped offering practical electives and replaced them with advanced placement courses.  Auto shop, home economics, and sometimes even physical education are no longer required – and, in some schools, they’re not even offered as electives.  Electronics shop, a practical elective which for many older engineers was where we got our first exposure to amateur radio, has been swept away along with many other subjects not focused on the “college track”.

It can be argued that this is a good thing: it’s now increasingly difficult in the US to make a living with only a secondary-school diploma; obtaining a college ungraduated degree is now the minimal requirement for a majority of entry-level technical jobs.  In fact, most job postings in engineering now list a master’s degree in engineering or an M.B.A. as a basic requirement, with a Ph.D. often added as a preferred requirement.

The Value of Practical Skills

Given these trends in job requirements, many may suggest that we not allow our young people to waste school time on trade skills and focus instead on getting them into a trajectory which leads to advanced degrees.  Many undergraduate programs focus heavily on equipping students with the latest knowledge base of a rapidly changing electronics field – in a sense, the undergraduate program has replaced the trade skills aspect of secondary education.  Most advanced degree programs focus on theory and are taught using simulations and theoretical constructs – a course of study that often ignores the challenges of building real-world systems and fails to teach the practical troubleshooting and system-integration skills that form the basis of the technology on which our economy increasingly depends.

An internationally known Silicon Valley company, famous for having a very young employee demographic, has begun hiring older engineers as they expand their efforts beyond web apps and the cloud into smartphones, wearable devices, and semiconductors.  The reason is simple: making wireless systems and semiconductors requires practical skills in troubleshooting, system integration, and real-world design that can only be learned by a repeated doing-failing-redoing cycle.  And these aren’t skills that are taught in many master’s and Ph.D. degree programs.

Amateur Radio as a Hands-On Educational Tool

Practical experience building real-world systems is critical to a meaningful post-secondary education.  Private industry is also demanding engineers skilled in troubleshooting and system integration.  This is why amateur radio has increasingly become a popular tool for professors seeking to compliment theoretical understanding with practical circuit-building and system integration skills.  Amateur radio (or ham radio, as it is popularly called) offers postsecondary students a direct opportunity to apply the theory they learn in engineering courses.  Additionally, it gives them an appreciation for system-integration concepts as well as troubleshooting techniques.

These advantages are especially acute for RF and microwave engineering.  Many universities may not have spectrum analyzers, network analyzers, and other expensive test and measurement instruments available to supplement RF and microwave theory courses.  However amateur radio gives them a low-cost opportunity to engage students in building circuits and systems operating in the RF realm – and to teach them how to get things done with improvised equipment and minimal resources.

There are very few post-secondary curricula that allow universities and students to have the comprehensive “audio to antenna” experience – an approach which is possible with amateur radio.

Real World Examples

A number of universities, however, have noted this demand for graduates well versed in comprehensive electronics skills.  The following schools have responded to this demand by incorporating amateur radio into their curricula.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Known widely for its hands-on approach to technical education, Cal Poly Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) at San Luis Obispo – under the leadership of Dr. Dennis Derickson, chair of the school’s electrical engineering department – is notable for its work in designing and building satellites: they’ve launched eight and are currently building two more.  Because these satellites use amateur radio frequencies for uplink/downlink, students in the Cal Poly satellite project are required to have amateur radio licenses.  Other programs at Cal Poly are similarly practical and require students to be licensed.

University of California, Davis
The University of California (UC) campus at Davis has always had a practical electrical engineering program with a number of RF and microwave courses.  In 2009 Dr. Linda Katehi, well-known for her work in RF and microwave design, became chancellor of UC Davis, and the electrical engineering department has since become a recognized leader in millimeter-wave and THz research.  Undergraduates who participate in the Senior Design Project build a working Doppler radar, and professors like Dr. Xiaoguang (Leo) Liu have begun integrating amateur radio into their undergraduate and graduate project curricula.

Carnegie Mellon University
Amateur radio has been a constant aspect of student life at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.  The school’s amateur radio club was created in 1914, and the students on campus there today operate and maintain the W3VC repeater.  CMU’s satellite campus at Moffett Field in Silicon Valley offers a very hands-on, graduate-level engineering program; under the leadership of Dr. Robert Iannucci and Dr. Martin Griss, the students at CMU Silicon Valley with amateur radio licenses are given an opportunity to participate in unique research projects that focus on solving practical, real-world wireless engineering challenges.

Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu Nepal
Dr. Sanjeeb Panday and his students at Tribhuvan University’s Institute of Engineering have been on the forefront of a unique journey.  Nepal has been recovering from a terrible civil war and making a transition to a constitutional republic, and the country is only now beginning to allow amateur radio within their borders.  Under the leadership of Dr. Panday the number of licensed amateurs in Nepal has increased from only five to nearly one hundred, and his students were able to successfully install the country’s only VHF repeater system in midst of the major aftershock of the huge earthquake that devastated Nepal in April 2015.  Dr. Panday and his students have overcome numerous economic, social, and political obstacles because they recognize amateur radio’s potential as an educational tool.

Real World Value

Each of these universities utilizes distinct and innovative approaches to incorporate theory, design elements, and licensing in amateur radio into their coursework.  Increasing numbers of universities are adopting this approach.  The consequence of this work has been substantial and in the case of the work being done in Nepal, potentially life-saving.

Amateur Radio at IMS2016 – and Beyond

During IMS2016 there will be a moderated panel where professors from the universities described here discuss their experiences using amateur radio as a vehicle for teaching engineering electronics.  These instructors will share their motivations for using amateur radio, the way in which amateur radio is used in their curricula, and the impact this has had on graduates of their programs.  The panel session will be followed by a hosted social event for IMS2016 attendees who are also amateur radio operators.  

For over 100 years amateur radio has been a way for people to make friends and contacts in distant locations.  Increasingly, it is being used by universities to impart requisite skills in hands on troubleshooting, and system design and integration necessary for today’s engineering graduates.

It is increasingly difficult for employers to find talent with hands-on RF experience, and amateur radio experience aids in understanding radio systems and radio construction.  Many engineers in the field are amateur radio operators, and so amateur radio can be a good ice breaker during interviews.  Finally, networking within the amateur radio community can help young job seekers find career openings.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Happy to join the Ham Radio 360 family!

I'm super excited that Cale Nelson K4CDN to has included my updated blog on list of syndicated sites for his new community.  I've worked with Cale in the past as a guest of his Fo Time Podcast, and he's a great guy - with content from George KJ6VU and others, I expect Ham Radio 360 to grow quickly, and I'm glad I can be a part of that.

Update; Hoping that the search robots will pick up the fact that is now here - you'd think so since Blogger is Google..?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

New name, new look

Hi folks,

It's time for an update.  I've changed the URL of this blog, and given it a new look, in preparation for something which I can't yet talk about.  Suffice to say - it will be awesome.  I also fixed the problem with comments not displaying - beware of that Dynamic Views template.  Unfortunately, it looks like the changes caused all previous comments to disappear.  No matter - we move forward with anticipation of great things!