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Teaching tool ‘instrumental’ in revamped introduction course

Wenxuan Niu, right, and Dmytro Pushkin work on MATLAB programming in their ECE 1000 course. Students taking the course are given an introduction to MATLAB, a technical computing language, and basic computer engineering skills with the addition of a theremin.

A new learning tool for freshmen taking the introductory course to electrical and computer engineering (ECE 1000) will teach them basic programming and problem solving skills, and it also may help them cover songs originated by Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones.

ECE Professor Marjorie Skubic teaches the revamped ECE 1000 course.

Using a simplified theremin, an electronic musical instrument, students will be able to collect data and analyze it using MATLAB, a technical computing language used in plotting functions, analyzing data, implementing algorithms, creating user interfaces and more.

ECE Professor Marjorie Skubic, who teaches the class, said this is the first semester for the revamped course, which was designed specifically to introduce new students to MATLAB in addition to basic electrical and computing engineering concepts. Students will assemble the components of the theremin and use the device to generate data, which will then be analyzed using MATLAB.

“We think it’ll give the students experience in a more relevant programming language,” she said.

Two electrical engineering graduate students, Daniel Nabelek and Hisham Abdussamad Abbas, worked with Skubic over the summer to develop the materials for the course, including a theremin kit that students will purchase along with the interface software.

The parts of the simplified theremin used in this course, pictured above, include a speaker, a printed circuit board (bottom) and an Arduino micro-controller board (right), as well as an antenna and the interface software.

Theremins, named for Russian inventor Leon Theremin, who first patented the device in 1928, produce sound that is controlled by the user’s hand movements. Hand positions in relation to a conventional theremin’s two antennas control the oscillations that affect pitch and volume.

Each theremin kit contains a printed circuit board (PCB), an Arduino micro-controller board, an antenna and a speaker, as well as the interface software. This simplified theremin, as opposed to a conventional version, will only have one antenna, which will control pitch. Abdussamad Abbas designed the circuit board. Nabelek wrote the interface code.

“It creates this eerie sound that’s sometimes used in sci-fi,” Skubic said.

The instrument has been used in songs by Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, as well as in films such as “The Ten Commandments,” “Monster House” and “The Machinist.”

Abdussamad Abbas said he believes the basic principles taught in the course will benefit ECE students who continue through the bachelor’s degree program.

Hisham Abdussamad Abbas, left, and Daniel Nabelek designed a simplified theremin kit for students taking the introductory electrical engineering course. The theremin will be used to teach basic electrical engineering concepts and MATLAB programming.

“If you know MATLAB as soon as you go into school, it makes a very good platform to start on,” he said. “We can give new students a feel of it with the theremin.”

Skubic said the introductory course paves the way for students or faculty to use parts of or the whole theremin again.

“Most students will find they want to use one of these components for a future project,” Skubic said. “Once this becomes something the students have, I hope some other faculty will be able to use it in their projects.”