I just finished lecturing my most recent online course for Design News’ Continuing Education Center, “Designing with SoC FPGAs.” During the course, presented by Digi-Key, I asked students a variety of questions, via online chat, and often the answers told me what aspects of the topic the typical engineer (since that’s the typical student for my courses) was most interested in.
For example, during the first few classes, I asked the students to describe what types of applications they were most interested in. I used this information to customize the last class, where I gave a few example designs that were targeted at the applications the students described. This allowed me to focus on the elements of the class that students can apply right away to new designs -- something most engineers are very interested in.
In this last class, I decided to focus even more on the engineers’ desire for an immediate return on their time investment, structuring “System on Chip (SoC) FPGAs” similarly to a hands-on laboratory course. Students were able to use the free development software offered by the SoC vendor, which for this course, I selected Xilinx, to try out some hands-on exercises that allowed them to get familiar with the SoC devices, the tool flow, and design methodology. I also referenced several other hands-on examples Xilinx provides, as “homework.” Students had the option to try out additional example designs and dig deeper into advanced features and design techniques, if they desired.
I even offered optional class projects that featured the use of a development board for the Xilinx Zynq SoC FPGA that Digilent provides (the board is available from Digi-Key). Students were able to take example designs and run them through the tools, targeting the board with the generated program files. SoC FPGAs have both an on-chip processor and FPGA logic, so students could experiment with just programming the processor (in C) and could also program the FPGA fabric using a high-level design (HLD) language like Verilog. Many of the example designs are easy to customize, so students could try out a design that was close to their application interests.
Toward the end of the class, I asked students if they enjoyed the “hands-on” nature of the course and if they preferred it to some of the less-detailed courses I have done (many of the students have taken multiple Design News CEC courses that I have lectured). Perhaps not surprising, a vast majority of the students said they preferred a more hands-on course and even having homework assignments.
I asked if they were planning on doing the homework right away, and many said they did, but a large number also said they would put the homework “on the shelf” until they had the time or until their projects got to the point where they were ready to get into the details. How many times have you wished that you could tell your professors that you didn't want to do your homework yet and that you would just wait until you had a use for Euler’s equation or Chinese remainder theorem. (Well, I don't give my students grades, so I guess I can let them slide.)
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This does say quite a bit about how engineers prefer to learn new topics, however. We often require a compelling need to make time to learn something new, and then a hands-on approach is often the best. Development boards with detailed example designs and step-by-step lab-type exercises offer busy professionals just the right platform for getting up to speed on devices, technologies, and software tools. If you are an engineer and you think that you might be interested in learning more about SoC FPGAs, take my archived course and either do the homework or just put it on the shelf for when you find out from your boss that you need to begin a design yesterday.
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Warren Miller has more than 30 years of experience in electronics and has held a variety of positions in engineering, applications, strategic marketing, and product planning with large electronics companies like Advanced Micro Devices, Actel, and Avnet, as well as with a variety of smaller startups. He has in-depth experience of programmable devices (PLDs, FPGAs, MCUs, and ASICs) in industrial, networking, and consumer applications and holds several device patents.