Hands-On Engineering Course Introduces First-Year Students to AI

In Fall 2023, the course EGN1935 – Special Topics in Freshmen Engineering: Adventures in ECE Design provided students with an immersive, hands-on experience in exploring AI hardware principles and applications. It was instructed by Dr. Swarup Bhunia and PhD students Andrea Ramírez-Salgado and Atri Chatterjee. The course was designed with the goal of making AI education accessible and immersive for first-year engineering students, even without prior knowledge of AI or hardware concepts.

Jack Rainville works on his final project.

The semester was divided into two parts, each focusing on different aspects of hardware and AI integration. During the first half of the semester, students participated in a variety of activities aimed at strengthening their understanding of hardware concepts, particularly centered around field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These activities, both gamified and non-gamified, emphasized the importance of using hardware boards to collect environmental data for addressing real-world challenges.

Transitioning into the latter part of the semester, students were introduced to the AHA board, an IoT platform developed in the Nelms Institute IoT Lab. Here, AI was creatively integrated as part of a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach, offering meaningful experiential learning opportunities. Equipped with various sensors and a microcontroller, the AHA board enabled students to gather environmental data and implement machine-learning algorithms for prediction and classification. Through this hands-on experience, students simulated the integration of AI with IoT technologies (AIoT) and gained insight into the emerging concept of Edge AI, deploying machine learning algorithms directly on the device without relying on external web-based or cloud services.

“The curriculum was carefully scaffolded to meet diverse learning needs, incorporating Universal Design for Learning and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies principles, fostering a PBL environment where all students received appropriate coding support and conceptual understanding,” Ramírez-Salgado said.

As the semester concluded, students collaborated in groups to develop prototype solutions for real-life challenges using AIoT or Edge AI technologies. The final project presentations garnered significant interest from ECE faculty and graduate students, who were thoroughly impressed by the innovative solutions proposed by the students.

“Despite being first-year engineering students with no required background in coding, hardware principles, or AI concepts, the outcomes were impressive,” Ramírez-Salgado said.

Some of the projects included a ring equipped with a heart rate sensor and a motion sensor for fall detection in elderly populations, and an automated pet feeder equipped with an ultrasonic sensor to detect when the food in the feeder is running out and refill it.

Eric (Jack) Rainville, a first-year electrical engineering student, was one of the students in the class.

“I thought the class was a lot of fun, and a great introduction to programming hardware,” he said. “I really liked learning how to use Edge Impulse and deploying my own AI on a wireless device.”