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University of Michigan Engineering Students See the Music

Dr. Alexander Ganago is using music to generate interest and enthusiasm in Electrical Engineering (EE) at the University of Michigan. And why not? Most students have a passion for and a keen interest in music. What better way to teach EE theories such as spectral analysis and filters than with popular music that is familiar and recognizable by the students?

One of the daunting challenges faced by many Engineering Colleges is how to teach EE to non-EE majors. “Students perceive EE as very abstract because they lack observable facts, which are plentiful in Mechanical and other fields of engineering,” reflects Dr. Ganago. “We use 2 strategies to help students relate EE to their interests: one is to build circuits applicable to their field of major, such as controllers that respond to sensor signals and turn on/off motors and other actuators; the other is to engage their sensory perception.”

Using Sensory Experiences to Enhance Learning

Dr. Ganago, Instructional Laboratories Manager and Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, designed several Lab experiments that engage the senses of sight and hearing of students in the lab to help them learn and retain their EE lessons. In his Labs, students listen to sounds, observe their spectra, and determine their own range of hearing. They also build circuits with blinking lights and determine the frequency range of their visual perception. These experiments do not replace the “standard” EE measurements but rather add a new dimension to the student learning.

That’s where the music comes in. Dr. Ganago uses it in teaching two abstract concepts – the Fourier spectra of signals, and the transfer functions of filters. Together with Graduate Student Sudarshan Sivaramakrishnan, Dr. Ganago created two new Lab experiments that fit into the standard sequence of teaching EE for non-EE majors. Each of these experiments includes the pre-lab, in-lab measurements, and post-lab analysis. Mr. Sivaramakrishnan who is working on his Ph. D. dissertation in laser physics and nonlinear optics, has taught the labs for non-EE students part-time and contributed to these projects with his experience in teaching, his enthusiasm in music, and his knowledge of music-editing software.

In the Spectra Lab, students first learn about the Fourier series for simple periodic signals – sine, square, and ramp. The lab manual emphasizes that the fundamental component of the spectrum acts as a pure musical tone, and the harmonics act as overtones. Then students start listening to the sounds of music, which they produce with the Virtual Keyboard® freeware on the Internet. Doing the pre-lab, students play single notes on various virtual instruments (flute, piano, etc.) on their home or library computer, and guess which of the sounds involves more harmonics. In the lab, they play the same notes on the same instruments – and use the Agilent DSOX2012A oscilloscope to measure both the waveforms and the spectra, while listening to these sounds. The students relate their perception of music with objective measurements and enhance both the learning of new concepts and their appreciation of music. If time permits, students play their favorite music and observe its waveforms and spectra on the Agilent oscilloscope.

Filters in the cloud and filters on the Lab desk

In the Filters Lab, students solder their own circuit, which can be used (depending on connection) as a Low-Pass (LP), High-Pass (HP), Band-Pass, or Band-Reject filter. In the pre-lab, students use the Audacity® freeware on the Internet to mimic the LP and HP filters with the same specs as their circuit, and listen to a popular music clip in 3 ways: without any filter, through LP filter, and through HP filter. The clip chosen for this experiment includes 3 distinct sources of sounds: low-frequency bass guitar, mid-range vocals, and high-frequency cymbals. All these sources are clearly heard without filtering, but the cymbals “disappear” when the LP filter is applied, and the guitar sounds are blocked by the HP filter. In the pre-lab, students use the digital filter that resides somewhere “in the cloud” and write down their conclusions about the functionalities of these filters.

In the lab, after they soldered the circuit and measured its transfer function, students apply their own filters to the same clip of music – and relate the formal measurements to their sensory perception of the music. Again, the fun, optional part of this experiment allows students to play their favorite music through their own filters – and listen to what comes out. It provides an opportunity for open-ended exploration for each student, driven by his or her own interest.

Agilent Powers the Michigan Labs

When it comes to providing the right gear for Dr. Ganago’s labs, Agilent Technologies has been the vendor of choice. For many years, the Michigan EECS lab has been well equipped with Agilent test instrumentation. “The Agilent 34401A digital multimeters and the E3631A power supplies are the workhorses in our lab,” observes Dr. Ganago. “We also use the Agilent 33220A function generator to create standard and arbitrary waveforms.”

In 2012, the Michigan EECS lab was outfitted with the new Agilent oscilloscopes. The introductory labs, including that for non-EE majors, received DSOX2012A 100 MHz two channel oscilloscopes. “The Agilent scopes are changing the teaching paradigm in our labs,” acknowledges Dr. Ganago. “They are great in every respect. One of the most useful features of the Agilent scopes is the ability to save and print screen shots. For example, by saving a series of screen shots, it is very easy to compare and communicate the impact of changing electrical parameters on a circuit. In addition, this ability to save screen shots is the fastest way to document a student’s results in the lab. Having this data at their fingertips is timely and important. Another tremendous benefit to the Agilent scopes is the extremely intuitive user interface. The students learn how to use the instrument very quickly.”

“These instruments are a joy for all. I’m very happy to work with Agilent,” concludes Dr. Ganago. “Our teaching approach is greatly improved, especially with the new generation of Agilent oscilloscopes.”

Reaching Out

In addition to addressing the needs of current students, Michigan’s engineering program reaches out to prospective high school students and their families with events such as the Tech Day, where potential engineering candidates get a chance to explore Michigan Engineering, including a tour of the impressive and highly visible Showcase EECS laboratory. Dr. Ganago’s work may very well become a catalyst for generating interest in engineering in the future. There is discussion on how to use his “sensory” teaching approach to generate interest in science and engineering with a wider audience, including first year engineering and high school students. “These music experiments can be used for much broader audiences even down to the K-12 level to evoke interest in electrical engineering,” predicts Dr. Ganago. Now that’s an approach that will surely help build a strong engineering program at Michigan.

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