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A Tour of The CSM Electronics Prototyping Facility

Christopher G. Braun

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Abstract - The Division of Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines has developed a new approach in teaching and using electronic circuit fabrication skills as a standard part of our undergraduate electronics laboratories. We have created a vertically integrated facility with advanced computer-aided design (CAD) tools, quick and cheap printed circuit board (PCB) fabrication machinery and industry-standard electronics assembly tools. This facility has brought a new capability to our undergraduate laboratories for our students to design and fabricate significant circuits that used to be abstract problems because the implementation was too difficult or expensive.

Since typical graduates from four-year electrical engineering degree programs have no electronics production skills, they must then learn on the job these necessary skills and industry must cope with the lowering of productivity and quality. Given the needs of the students and industry, it seems only natural that electrical engineering degree programs should give students a basic preparation in electronics production skills to enable their graduates to function better as working engineers.

This work discusses the rationale for our approach, the impact these changes have had on our students, and gives a tour of the Electronics Prototyping Facility (EPF).

I. Why an Electronics Prototyping Facility is Needed

Engineering is defined by Webster's II dictionary as "The application of scientific principles to practical ends." The standard four-year electrical engineering bachelor's degree program provides a combination of mathematical skills, scientific training, practical knowledge as well as other preparation. One of the trends in electrical engineering degree programs seems to be a de-emphasis of practical hands-on skill for reasons including: the high cost of running an electronics laboratory in both equipment and faculty time[1]; the advent of excellent computer tools that sometimes are used in place of a hands-on laboratory; and the students themselves have fewer hands-on skills than previous generations.[2]

The need for more practical, hands-on skills has been widely recognized both by industry as well as by the alumni and faculty from electrical programs.[3,4] In particular for electrical engineers, it has been my experience that there is a wide gulf between the design and analysis skills acquired in school and the ability to implement a real electronic system. As a result, students are poorly prepared to enter the work force and deal with the real-world difficulties in implementing electronic circuit designs.

While relatively few electrical engineers will fabricate their own VLSI integrated circuits, many will be required to take a circuit from design to prototype. With the advent of advanced computer design tools and "lean" design teams, engineers in industry can no longer count on an experienced support staff to handle the initial fabrication processes. Consequently, many of these engineers must then learn on the job the basic principles of layout and manufacture of printed circuit boards (PCBs) with the corresponding lowering of overall efficiency and quality. Thus, it is important for students to develop practical skills and gain a basic knowledge for electronic system production.

One of the problems in gaining real-world skills is the way most schools teach basic electronics laboratories. Typical projects in lower-level undergraduate electronics laboratories focus on teaching key concepts by having the student design, build and test many simple circuits. At the end of each laboratory, the circuit is disassembled. This approach results in a limited opportunity for the student to integrate their previous work into the next project. As a result, students are often frustrated in basic electronics laboratories as they never quite get to the level where they can design and build anything practical.

The CSM Electronics Prototyping Facility (EPF) provides students with the tools to design and build electronics systems for real engineering applications. It is a powerful tool to reshape the way students learn and think about electronics.

This prototyping facility consists of a vertical integration of design software, quick and local printed circuit board fabrication and industry-standard assembly tools. This set of tools give the users the ability to create prototype electronic circuit boards in a matter of hours instead of days. This capability permits students in our undergraduate laboratories to design and construct real-world circuits that used to be only abstract problems because the implementation was too difficult or expensive. For the first time, the process of design and construction of a significant circuit on a high-quality printed circuit board becomes possible, economical and desirable for undergraduate education.[5]

The electronics industry uses concurrent engineering and other methods to improve productivity by breaking down the barriers between design and production.[6] However, concurrent engineering cannot remedy the basic problem -- many working electrical engineers have no training in electronics fabrication methods. With limitations in time and equipment, electrical engineering four-year degree programs concentrate on developing the fundamentals and theoretical understanding of their students. However, given the needs of students and industry it seems only natural that electrical engineering degree programs should give students a basic preparation in production skills to enable their graduates to function better as working engineers.[7,8,9,10]

II. Educational Objectives

To attain the real benefit from this facility, we feel it is necessary to rethink the way we teach undergraduate electronics laboratories to emphasize the ties between design and fabrication and to develop modular electronic projects that build on each other in an appropriate manner. Previous papers discuss how our Junior level electronics classes make use of this prototyping facility as part of our standard electronics laboratory instruction.[11,12]

Our specific educational objectives include the following:

  1. To familiarize the students with the manufacturing process for printed circuit boards and have them learn industry-standard software design tools used in the design and production of electronic systems
  2. To revitalize our electronics laboratories by providing a new means to "build up" from smaller modules to significant systems that re-enforces learning and design
  3. To provide the students the means and the practice of implementing their designs and to breakdown the barriers between theoretical understanding and practical implementation.

Reaching these objectives cannot be the result of one project. Rather, they are the cumulative result of a sequence of projects throughout our electronics curriculum.

III. Main Navigation Menu

Further information about the Electronics Prototyping Facility at CSM can be found through the links shown below.

View Slide Show:
View Technical Paper:

Contact Information

Christopher G. Braun
Division of Engineering
Colorado School of Mines
Golden, CO 80401
Phone: (303) 273-3679
Fax: (303) 372-3602


Christopher G. Braun graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982 with an SB in Physics and Electrical Engineering. He then received his MS and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in High Voltage Switching in 1985 and 1987, respectively. From 1987 to 1992 he served as a Signal Corps officer on active duty in the U.S. Army on posts ranging from the 2nd Infantry Division, Korea to the Army Research Laboratory at Fort Monmouth, NJ. He joined the faculty at the Colorado School of Mines in 1992 as an Assistant Professor and has played an active role in developing new electronics and laboratory-based curricula.