Accessible PCB Design for Educators and Students

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I don’t know about you, but 99% of what I know about printed circuit board (PCB) design I picked up on the job. The only time I ever really considered the idea of making my own PCB in college was during my senior project, my final year. In the end, the team and I ended up doing point to point connections on perf board because that’s what we knew and had time for. These days I still wonder why PCB design was never part of the curriculum.  It seems something so fundamental, like a carpenter working with wood.

The Benefits of PCB Design for Education

CadSoft EAGLE LayoutEditorNow, I understand that the Electrical Engineering (EE) undergrad curriculum is full to the brim and that it’s constantly being changed and adjusted to meet ever changing demands. I’m not trying to change the system, that’s something well outside my control. However, I would like to encourage professors to take the time to include a project during the semester that can be used to introduce students to tools they can use to bring their ideas to life. As important as it is for your students to understand electrical theory, Maxwell’s equations, etc. it is also equally important that they see the applications of the information. To be able to physically play with electrons, and see the deviations from the ideal theory is invaluable, and prepares students for the rigors of real world engineering.

CadSoft Eagle schematic screen shotIt’s important to note that EAGLE can be the cornerstone of a well-rounded approach to education. Simulation tools are a vital part of the engineering landscape. They allow engineers to quickly assess the feasibility of certain design choices and to confirm assumptions. EAGLE contains interfaces to PCBSim and LTSpice simulators. PCBSim by Felicitas focuses on high frequency simulation using transmission line, IBIS and s-parameter models. This integration can help illustrate key concepts in electro-magnetics allowing students to develop real intuition on how real circuits work. The LTSpice simulator is a free, fully-featured SPICE simulator provided by Linear Technologies. It is ideally suited to circuit courses that allow students to see component interactions and really explore the circuit concepts they are learning in class. The integration with EAGLE facilitates taking ideas from conception to prototype and closes the gap between theory and practice.

What can you learn from PCB Design?

CadSoft EAGLE AutorouterEven if a student never designs a printed circuit board in their professional career, having a notion of PCB design will help them design better products. For example, I often get files from college students for review. The first thing that jumps out at me is the lack of bypass capacitors, rarely do I see bypass capacitors on IC rails in student designs. When I suggest that they add bypass capacitors close to the power pins of all of their ICs they usually ask, why? My response usually involves telling them that, contrary to simulator sources, real world power supplies are imperfect and they are susceptible to noise which can affect the operation of their circuits. The bypass capacitor serves as a filter to guarantee that their integrated circuits have a clean power supply which will allow them to operate properly. Tips like these help students avoid costly redesigns and allow them to have a better grasp of how to make working circuits. Imagine a recent EE grad making this type of omission for a customer, what consequences might this entail for the student? It’s something to think about.

Making PCB Design easy to implement for teachers

If you’re a professor you may be thinking “Well, that sounds good, but I have enough work as it is. How can I incorporate this type of project without drastically increasing my workload? How do I even grade the work and protect against plagiarism?” CadSoft Eagle is here to help. Our PCB design software tool, EAGLE, has been successfully used in schools and universities all over the world. We held a joint webinar with Professor Taylor Morey of Conestoga College in Canada on how EAGLE can be implemented in an educational environment. The link below takes you to the recorded video of the event.

In conclusion, I personally feel that every electrical engineering student should at some point design a printed circuit board, build it, test it, and relish the satisfaction of seeing their creation come to life. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. Pressures to cover massive amounts of information and reliance on simulation tools have made PCB design a “nice to cover, if I have time” subject. Make the time for it, even if it’s just one small project for the semester. Your students and the electronics industry in general will benefit. If you are a student, don’t wait, think of a project you would like to make and just make it. Take your education into your own hands. You’ll be really happy you did.

Courtesy of Guest Blogger Jorge Garcia from Cadsoft Computer


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