@Charles Murray: I agree that there's a need for both theory and practice. In the example of the three-year-old learning to use the iPhone, it's very unlikely that the child would learn why capacitive sensors or accelerometers work just by playing around with the phone... and why is something that three-year-olds (and college students, and adults) want and need to know.
Hands-on learning is essential, but it only tells us how things work, not why they work. The underlying principles are usually non-obvious, which is why it has taken several millenia for people to figure them out. (If someone showed a GPS satellite to Issac Newton, could he have figured out special relativity? Probably not). We need someone to explain these things to us, which is why books and lectures (and copious note-taking!) are so important.
Good point, Liz. The first year of engineering school drives some students away -- this is a recognized problem. Too much theory, not enough hands-on learning. As a result, washout rates in most of the big public engineering schools are between a half and two-thirds, according to statistics from the University of Texas a few years back. Engineering curriculums are working hard to change that, but change is slow.
I completely agree, as personally I have learned so much more by hands-on experience than I ever have from hearing someone lecture at me, or even reading books. It is the most natural way to learn something, especially in engineering where trial and error are a part of the process. Funny that engineers are rethinking the design of things so much but it seems like sometimes no one has thought to redesign the teaching and learning process!
There's little doubt that the learning methods we use in schools aren't "natural" for everyone. Years ago, an engineering school in my hometown tried an experimental method wherein students would learn from the top down, rather than the bottom up. For example, if a student wanted to learn how to design a bridge, he or she wouldn't start with calculus, move to Newtonian physics and so on and so on. Instead, they would start with bridge design, then learn the math and science when necessary within the context of a structural engineering program. As I understand, the method worked great for one student, who went on to get a PhD. But it caused enormous headaches for the university, which didn't know how to keep control of the learning process and assign grades. So while it's true that universities don't always employ the most natural teaching methods, sometimes those methods are unfortunately necessary.
Thanks for covering this from the teacher's POV. DN editors have written before about MapleSim, such as this article from last September: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1394&doc_id=250202
Excellent idea, starting with the simulation to augment the classroom lectures. As Dave said, it should not be replacing the lab portion, but it does give some additional benefits in that it allows the students to investigate the limits of the devices without letting the smoke out.
I have developed countless circuits and mechanical designs in a virtual space. I even tested operation, which turned out to be exactly like the real-world counterparts operated. I started doing this to have an ideal working environment, instead of battling faulty soldering and/or printing. Too many other factors come into play in the physical form. Once verified in virtual space, a build tends to go smoother, in my opinion.
Yes, I almost hate to admit, simulation has a place. After all, you have an endless supply of components and test equipment that never get damaged. It's also valuable for studying the difference between ideal and actual components, as well as studying component attributes like ESR.
I completely agree that simulation shouldn't replace labs. The students in my ELE 604 class will tell you that the labs are very hands-on and practical (lots of soldering, lots of coding). Simulations like the ones we do in MapleSim are integrated into the practical lab components to help them understand the underlying theory and to explore the designs in ways that are impractical in the lab equipment (wide parameter sweeps of components, for instance). In the end, the validation is always done on practical hardware.
all the best,
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