Jeanne Christman is an Associate Professor and the Associate Department Chair for ECTET in the College of Engineering Technology. This month, she shares with us how she uses systems design projects to help students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to break down large problems into component parts.
1. How Do You Teach Applied Critical Thinking?
In my Digital Systems Design course, I focus on the applied critical thinking skill of analysis by asking students to design systems rather than single components. I have found that most students generally approach homework assignments by looking back in the chapter (or online), finding a similar problem and then just applying the same formula or coding steps. They focus on the procedural rather than the conceptual. By assigning unique system design problems, students cannot find a similar example in the textbook or online. Additionally, system design, even for simple systems, requires the students to break a large problem down into its component parts. In the beginning of the semester, I scaffold student learning by defining the components of each system. In this early stage, students design and integrate together the components that I have defined. As the semester progresses I give the students more and more autonomy in choosing which components they will use. By the end of the semester, they get only a system description for which they choose, design and integrate all of the components. Throughout the entire process, I stress the importance of creating visual aids to guide their design. For example, students are required to create block diagrams that show each of the components and the signals that interconnect and transfer data between them. In the lecture portion of the class, I introduce students to the fundamental building blocks of digital systems so that they develop a “toolbox” of components to work with. When they are faced with a system design, students must think critically to first decompose the system into functional units and then draw from their toolbox to identify the correct components to meet the function of that unit.
2. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain?
My domain of embedded systems is one that is advancing at lightning speed. Every hour of every day we use products that contain an embedded system and list of these devices gets longer each week. Embedded systems have improved our safety, our comfort, our quality of life and our health. Critical thinking is important in the design and development of such devices where designers analyze tradeoffs that affect cost, size, power consumption and time to market. This critical thinking has always been a part of the design process, but as technology advances we need to extend our critical thinking to include the implications of our products on society. Just because we can make a device, should we? Each year thousands of new products containing embedded systems are introduced, but ethical considerations are being left out of the design process. I feel there needs to be a shift in focus away from just turning a profit and towards a critical analysis of how these products could be used in unintended ways that could negatively impact society. One needs only to Google “video camera Barbie” to see an example of a product that for which implications were not considered prior to product release.
3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?
In my first job out of college I worked for an integrated circuit manufacturer. I was the person who received the design from the customer, simulated it to verify it was functionally correct and would meet timing specifications and then worked with the test engineers in testing the chips when they were completed. In one instance, the customer reported that that their chips were failing when placed in the product. I had to isolate the conditions under which it was failing and then replicate those conditions in test vectors. This process revealed that the customer provided test vectors did not cover these conditions and the problem was a race condition (a poor design on the customer’s part). After the problem was isolated, the customer, the fabrication engineer and I met to discuss the best course of correction. We considered cost and production delays in our determination that a complete redesign was cost and time prohibitive. After considering several alternatives, we concluded that we could solve the problem by slowing down one of the two signals that was racing. By changing just a few of the production masks, we were able to physically change the size of one of the traces to slow it down enough to flip the race condition. This was an unconventional fix that only minimally affected the customer’s production schedule and kept them reasonably within budget. Critical thinking was employed from analysis through solution proposal.
4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of RIT?
One of my interests outside of RIT and embedded systems design is quilting. While some quilters follow patterns, I enjoy making quilts from t-shirts and flannel shirts where each quilt block is a different size. I choose to quilt this way so that each quilt is unique and meaningful to the person for whom I make it. The t-shirts that a person collects tells a story about who they are and I can bring that story to life through my work. Designing unique quilts combines creativity with mathematical analysis as the blocks need to be arrange so that the story flows, the colors transition and I end up with 4 columns of the same height. Since each quilt is unique, there is no formula that can be applied. Each quilt is a new project that requires me to consider the person and the materials while designing a finished product that is aesthetically pleasing and uniformly sized.
5. Any Last Critical Thoughts?
To be honest, students do not always respond well to our attempts to ask them to think critically. As a matter of fact, in the class I describe above, they often complain that I do not give them enough information or I did not parse the system for them. It is a new way of thinking for students who have, up until this point, been successful by plugging numbers into a formula. The more classes that integrate critical thinking from day one, the better our students will become at it and the less resistance they will give us.