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Simulations prompt insight into student learning

Engineering professors are incorporating simulation programs in their courses–without having to write them–and engaging their students in new ways using nanoHUB resources.

Tanya Faltens, lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, has been using nanoHUB simulations for three years in her courses, Introduction to Electronic Materials and Properties (MTE 208) and Introduction to Semiconductor Devices (ECE 330).

“The A students do really well; they change parameters and interpret what happens. The weaker students take my instructions, don’t understand them, play around with stuff–not in the way that was intended–and part of their work is right, but part is befuddled,” Faltens says. “If not for this experience, I would not know the types of misconceptions they are holding.”TanyaFaltens.jpg

By including simulations in assignments, Faltens provides a way for students to develop an intuitive sense of the concepts they are studying. “I hope they can get some sort of feel that’s separate from putting numbers into equations. I find that, if I give them numbers, they try to come up with something similar to what is in the back of the book,” she says.

How she started

Collaboration with another professor made it easy for Faltens to incorporate nanoHUB assignments into her upper-division electrical engineering class. At a workshop three years ago, she connected with Stella Quiñones from the University of Texas at El Paso, who was teaching a course covering the same material.

Quiñones shared a folder showing nanoHUB homework assignments as well as other assignments and exams.

“With slight modifications, I was able to give my students a nanoHUB assignment the next week,” Faltens says.

Students’ reactions

nanoHUB assignments can generate a lot of enthusiasm and excitement among students.

“One quarter, I introduced nanoHUB early on. The first assignment was: Go to nanoHUB, explore, and report back on three cool things you found,” Faltens says. “That assignment got a really great response, as the students each had different areas of interest.”

Students familiar with SPICE from a previous course enjoyed the SPICE simulation on nanoHUB. “They recognized the value of being able to do that,” she says.

Timing can affect students’ reactions to nanoHUB assignments. “I find their reactions have a lot to do with their first nanoHUB assignment, when I make it, and how I introduce it,” Faltens says. “If they start feeling overloaded and we do not use nanoHUB until later in the quarter, they might not have the right experience.”

Faltens also found that encountering a technical difficulty can derail a nanoHUB assignment. If a computer lab in one campus building blocks access to Java, for example, a student might think access is denied from every computer lab and stop trying.

What’s next

Faltens continues to search for nanoHUB materials to incorporate into her courses. She reviews materials for accuracy and clarity in representation. When she suspects an error or finds something is not represented the same way she covers it in class, Faltens enters a ticket on nanoHUB.

Recently, nanoHUB’s technical director Lynn Zentner worked with graduate student Saumitra Raj Mehrotra to update the Carrier Statistics tool. One modification was color-coding graphs with electrons shown blue and holes, red.

In addition, the energy spacing for the f(E) and g(E) functions was changed so that students could download the data and multiply the numbers together on their own computer, creating their own graphs to compare to the graph generated on nanoHUB. Faltens says this change could help give students a better numerical connection to the data.

“The color-coding modification is certainly going to be helpful, and I am excited to try it out with my students this quarter,” Faltens says.

Incorporating nanoHUB resources into a course requires preparation time up front. “Any little change to a class takes extra effort, but I am still looking for–and finding–appropriate tools and lessons on nanoHUB. Over time, it seems as though more of the material is useful for my classes,” she says.

Writer: Jennifer Crowell, communication specialist, Network for Computational Nanotechnology, 765-496-6541, jmcrowell@purdue.edu