ECE UC Davis During the Pandemic: Alumni and Industry Support

knoesen and rashtian

By Professor Josh Hihath

In the Spring of 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning, everyone’s lives were disrupted. Schools and offices closed, friends and family had to remain separate, and masks and social distancing came to represent the “new normal”. 

At UC Davis the switch from in-person to remote teaching occurred practically overnight. At the end of Winter quarter, final exams were modified, and few, if any, students came back to campus in Spring quarter as the reality of remote instruction set in. Instructors and staff took on new roles and explored new technologies, and students had to quickly adapt to the new settings where instruction, study groups, and labs all went virtual.  

High priorities for the ECE department are to maintain high-quality education, enable teamwork in the new virtual environment, and provide our students with hands-on lab experiences during the pandemic  (to read more:  Enabling Student Success in ECE Courses During the COVID-19 Pandemic). With support from MathWorks, Professors Marina Radulski, Diego Yankelevich and Andre Knoesen adopted new teaching approaches for a large introductory programming class such that teams can collaborate virtually on projects (to read more: Professor Reengineers MATLAB Course Overnight in Response to COVID).  Some of the new methods have proven to be so effective that selected elements will continue post-pandemic (to read more: Engaging Students in Project-Based Learning with MATLAB Mobile and ThingSpeak). Generous support from Silvaco allowed Professor Erkin Seker and his teaching assistant, Ahasan Ahamed, to convert an integrated fabrication course, normally a hands-on lab course taught in the microfabrication facility, to a virtual offering that permitted the course to be available to a larger group of students than the microfabrication facility could have accommodated. 

Providing students with hands-on lab experiences during the pandemic required finding ways to get lab materials to students, and innovative new ways to implement those labs. With support from Texas Instruments,  instructors and teaching assistants rapidly re-wrote lab manuals, added simulation components to labs, and modified hardware and measurement instrumentation requirements (see Generous Support from Texas Instruments for Undergraduate Labs during the Pandemic and Enabling Student Success in an Online Lab-based Circuits Course).

One of the courses that was modified on the fly was EE-Emerge, a course where the students design and build exhibitions demonstrating engineering to the public.  In EE-Emerge, COVID-19 was used as an opportunity to expose students to how teams in the industry collaborate effectively on a project remotely across different time zones, and how to communicate their results on sites like GitHub and Hackster (to read more: Introduction of Students to Engineering Design Practices of Remote and Distributed Collaboration: Lessons Learnt from COVID-19).  Video presentations were also made of projects: i) Four Face  ii) Light Fight, iii) Loop Master and iv) Snap Lights). 

lab students
Online project meeting in EE-Emerge


In addition to the generous support to individual courses, making remote instruction possible for hands-on laboratory courses has required ECE staff to ship large numbers of components and new, small form-factor instruments to students.  Such terrific dedication by the ECE staff early in the pandemic was noted by Chancellor Gary May, who wrote:  ‘Technology, of course, is key to remote instruction — but not all of it, not even in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where staff collaborated before Spring quarter on a major shipping project. They successfully delivered lab components — circuit boards and programming tools and the like — to 340 students up and down the state and elsewhere, so the department could “continue to educate future engineers and industry leaders”. 

The course material developed by ECE during the pandemic is made available for use by others. We were one of the first ECE departments to contribute to project Remote ECE Teaching (RECET) launched by the Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments Head Association (ECEDHA) by making detailed circuit lab instructions available for circuits classes developed during Summer and Fall 2020 by Professors Hooman Rashtian and Weijian Yang along with videos created by graduate student Tim Ambrose.  Professor Houman Homayoun and graduate student Najmeh Nazari have made publicly available for academics and industry a curriculum to design hardware accelerators by taking advantage of Intel's DevCloud, and was recently highlighted by Intel as a third party training module.

The essential role that teaching assistants played in this rapid conversion to virtual instruction during the Spring was recognized with 2019-20 Smita Bakshi Digital Learning & Teaching Awards given to  five teaching assistants:  Nicholas Hosein, Tim Ambrose, Hongbo Lu, Juan Arguello and Sean Alling.     

During the pandemic, all course fees were suspended, which could have had a large negative effect on project-based classes such as senior design. Fortunately, with support from Texas Instruments, Intel, and Lawrence Livermore National Labs, the department was able to support additional costs for senior design projects and other impacted courses.  

The pandemic has had enormous impacts on the university and the department’s budgets. Leveraging the lessons learned about modern instrumentation, tools, and components for labs, we modernize how our lab classes are being taught to emphasize hands-on learning.

Certainly, all the changes made during the pandemic were stressful for students, and in particular, for many of our economically disadvantaged students, as the sudden, new technology costs compete for resources with rent, tuition, and other necessities. Students had to bear some additional costs as shipping large numbers of small components was logistically impractical for the department. Students had to order components from online distributors to help complete their lab assignments. 

An important objective was to find a way such that additional cost does not overly burden our students and to provide some financial assistance to those in need. As part of the UC Davis Gift Day 2020 that took place in early April, the ECE department reached out to our alumni community for help. Despite the hardships and uncertainty that many were facing at this time, within a period of a few days 68 alumni graciously donated a total of $18K. This allowed the Department to provide support for ECE students in financial need.  For example, the department initiated a mini-grant program for students in need to help cover the costs of books and supplies. Eligible students received aids to offset the cost in the UC Davis Equitable Access Program, a new program that provides all of the students with required textbooks for $199/quarter.