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Create, innovate, collaborate — that’s the idea behind the Collaboratory in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University.
Employers need profession-ready graduates in electrical and computer engineering who can successfully work on a team to create new products. So Oregon State is partnering with industry leaders like Tektronix and Texas Instruments to give students real-world work experience by developing working prototypes of new electrical systems.
Beaverton-based Tektronix has a decades-long partnership with Oregon State that gives students work-relevant experience. The Collaboratory is one of three engineering programs funded by the Tektronix Foundation’s recent $75,000 gift to The Campaign for OSU.
Brandon Greenley (B.S. ’99, M.S. ’01) is a new product development manager at Tektronix and also serves as the company’s liaison with the university. He says Tektronix focuses on hiring locally, and many of their new engineering hires come from Oregon State.
“I like to see that we’ve got strong relationships with several universities, but specifically Oregon State, because I know there’s a huge wealth of engineering talent there,” Greenley says.
For the inaugural project at the Collaboratory, three students were selected this year to work with Tektronix on creating concepts for next-generation user interfaces for oscilloscopes — electronic test instruments that measure signal voltages.
Tektronix is looking for ways to modernize the interface for oscilloscopes, which currently uses knobs and buttons to navigate menus and manipulate data.
“The way we’re interacting with devices now is much different than it was 10 years ago, and engineers will expect test and measurement equipment to follow along the path of consumer electronics,” Greenley says.
The three Collaboratory students have developed a concept interface that uses modern technology like touch screens, wireless design controls and voice recognition to control an oscilloscope.
“There is an ongoing need for next-generation user interfaces, and we evolve them continuously at Tektronix, but what the students bring to the project is the perspective of a new era of engineers,” Greenley says. “These students have grown up in a world filled with advanced user interfaces, and they can harness the power of their experience and worldview to create new concepts.”
It was the project itself that inspired Jake Gilbert, a freshman in electrical and computer engineering, to apply to the Collaboratory program.
“I thought it would be pretty cool to see how I could change the user interface since I’ll be using oscilloscopes for the rest of my life,” Gilbert says.
The new interface the students designed runs on a wireless touch screen and includes a small movable controller, both of which can be placed on the table where users are doing their work. Even this simple convenience is a big improvement for users who are used to reaching above their heads to turn knobs on an oscilloscope.
But the touch screen wins out as the favorite feature among the three students.
“It’s very intuitive for us to move things around on a screen. Oscilloscopes are all about manipulating waveforms, so being able to do that with your hand — instead of moving things with knobs like it’s an Etch-a-Sketch — is so much easier,” says Brian Benavidez, a junior in electrical and computer engineering.
But having a cool end product is not the only goal. Students get a chance to experience what it takes to bring a project from conception to prototype. Along the way the students also gain a deeper understanding of tasks like designing printed circuit boards and programming microcontrollers.
“In classes and labs, you have predetermined projects that have been done many times before. This is all new. It’s very different from class work and gives you the experience to be ready for future internships and jobs,” says Aidan Daly-Jensen, a sophomore in electrical and computer engineering.
Benavidez says that although he really wanted the opportunity to get the kind of experience the Collaboratory provides, he was at first overwhelmed when he was accepted. He gives credit to Don Heer, who coordinates the Collaboratory program, for creating a supportive environment that allows students to focus on improving their skills rather than worrying about making mistakes.
“I didn’t think that I would have the skills necessary at this point to make a product, but then I realized the program isn’t necessarily just about that,” Benavidez says. “It’s really been a tool for learning as well as a job.”
In addition to the Tektronix project, Heer is recruiting students for other Collaboratory programs, including one to develop wearable computing devices.