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Circuits and Electronics Taking a New Approach

By Jay Cameron


The end of the term marks the successful completion of the first semester of 6.002ex, a novel approach to teaching Circuits and Electronics.

The brainchild of Professors Hal Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman, 6.002ex is an experimental version of the traditional 6.002 and teaches the fundamentals of the lumped circuit abstraction with a twist. The course implements an experimental teaching method which brings in experts from the field, improves the student-to-faculty ratio, and incorporates practical applications into the coursework.

“The course tries to motivate the material with connections to the real world,” said 6.002ex tutor Philip Greenspun ’82.

One major way that the course tries to achieve this goal is by replacing standard recitation periods with tutorials. Traditional recitations are taught by teaching assistants that cover mostly lecture material and problem set material. MIT alumni teach the experimental tutorials, and they are focused on real-world case studies.

The idea of a case-study system comes directly from Harvard Medical School, where, rather than many hours of lectures, students learn through case studies facilitated by medical doctors drawn from the area. 6.002ex is an engineering version of the Harvard Medical School case study system with engineers instead of physicians.

‘Real world’ experience

“We still use and learn the same theory [as 6.002], except we use practical examples,” said 6.002ex student Daniel R. Jacobs ’05. In one case study, students might learn about home wiring or amplifiers. In a more difficult one, they might analyze different parts of an AM radio or an X-10 remote camera system. A case study this past semester even sent students on a trip with the Department of Facilities to learn about power distribution at MIT.

Class lab work allows some case studies to be more hands-on. After learning about amplifiers, 6.002ex students proceeded to build them in a lab. To the frustration of some students, the amplifier lab even included instructions which purposely caused the circuit to break. Students then had to deal with the frustrating real-world problem of replacing burned-out transistors.

In an advanced 6.002ex lab, students constructed an AM radio from a 1978 kit. Initially, students were given a breadboard on which they had to solder resistors, diodes, capacitors, and oscillator coils following the step-by-step instructions. Students calibrated and tested the AM radio in stages before placing everything on a printed circuit board and putting a case around it.

In the AM radio lab, “we’re building something that’s actually useful,” said Gabriel A. Lopez-Betanzos ’05.

Student-faculty ratio important

Around twenty students are enrolled in 6.002ex this spring term. The low student to faculty ratio compared to most other introductory classes at MIT is apparent at the lectures, when a relatively small number of students are juxtaposed with at least two lecturers and a handful of tutors.

Homework for 6.002ex, unlike homework for traditional 6.002, is done cyber-tutor style over the Internet, and when students have problems with the homework, the instructors make sure they have help. In addition to their lecturers’ office hours, students also have access to a number of the alumni tutors., and Abelson makes his home phone number available.

The setting for the class lectures is laid back. Professor Sussman, wearing his engineer’s costume: a pair of glasses, a complex plaid collared shirt, and a pocket protector, interacts both with the class and with the other instructors between his presentation of equations and schematics.

“It’s obvious that professors Abelson and Sussman put a lot of time into it,” Lopez-Betanzos said. “All the staff is really excited about it. That helps us a lot.”