David Atienza

Prize in the Electrical Engineering section

When Professor David Atienza took over teaching a very technical core course on embedded systems, he knew the course wasn’t very popular among the students. He rose to the challenge. Six years ago, he changed how the class was run by handing out Nintendo DS consoles for the students to work on throughout the term. It worked like a charm. “A lot of students thought the course was really complicated, but they were so inspired by this change that they asked to have the number of course credits increased from 3 to 4 so they could devote more time to it,” said Atienza.

How does it work? The students pair up and develop a game or a program. This is a fun way for them to learn complex concepts while at the same time having to manage all the other parameters like the screen and the wifi. In the end, they present their work to a jury of representatives from companies like Nokia, Microsoft and Texas Instruments and could win an internship or a Nintendo DS console. For Atienza this was a way to both motivate and reward the class.

Re-designing the course required a significant investment of time upfront for Atienza. It meant coming up with the course materials using a professional game console and developing a course curriculum that includes online classes, a forum and even a lab open to the students 24/7. “I spent a lot of time at the start answering questions online, but now the more advanced students help the novices,” said Atienza.

Students rated the course very highly, which earned Atienza the 2015 teaching prize in the Electrical Engineering section. Other professors in the section have followed his lead, applying a similar model to some other core courses. Atienza also teaches a Master’s degree course along the same lines, using tablets or smartphones (Google Nexus with Android and Apple iPhone with iOS). According to Atienza: “Regardless of their level and the complexity of the subject matter, the students like being able to test practical applications and see how technical concepts really work.”

Atienza is also coordinating the development of four online courses on embedded systems, together with two other instructors. This is a major undertaking that should further improve how the new generation of multiprocessor embedded systems is taught at the Bachelor’s level.