Collaboratory: Nurturing student innovations

Jake Gilbert (freshman), Brian Benavidez (junior), and Aidan Daly-Jensen (sophomore) demonstrate the working prototype they developed to modernize the user interface for oscilloscopes (electronic test instruments). The project was funded by a gift from the Tektronix Foundation, as part of the new Collaboratory.

Create, innovate, collaborate — that’s the idea behind the Oregon State Collaboratory in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Industry employers need work-ready graduates in electrical and computer engineering who can successfully work on a team to create new products. The challenge for educators is providing the students with the kind of real-world experiences that foster these abilities.

Oregon State is working with industry leaders like Tektronix and Texas Instruments on projects that give students a chance to develop working prototypes of new electrical systems.

The Tektronix Foundation awarded the first gift to Oregon State to establish the Collaboratory. For the inaugural project, three students were selected this year to work with Tektronix on creating concepts for next generation user interfaces for oscilloscopes, electronic test instruments that measure signal voltages.

Tektronix is looking for ways to modernize the interface for oscilloscopes that currently use knobs and buttons to navigate menus and manipulate data.

“The way we’re interacting with devices now is much different than it was 10 years ago and engineers will expect test and measurement equipment to follow along the path of consumer electronics,” says Brandon Greenley, manager for Tektronix, New Product Development.

The Tek Scholars have developed a concept interface that makes use of modern technology like touch screens, wireless design controls, and voice recognition.

“There is an ongoing need for next generation user interfaces, and we evolve them continuously at Tektronix, but what the students bring to the project is the perspective of a new era of engineers,” says Greenley.

“These students have grown up in a world filled with advanced user interfaces, and can harness the power of their experience and world view to create new concepts,” he says.

It was the project itself that inspired Jake Gilbert, a freshman in electrical and computer engineering, to apply to the program.

“I thought it would be pretty cool to see how I could change the user interface since I’ll be using oscilloscopes for the rest my life,” Gilbert says.

The new interface the students designed runs on a wireless touch screen and includes a small movable controller, both of which can be placed on the table where users are doing their work. Even this simple convenience is a big improvement for users who are used to reaching above their heads to turn knobs on the oscilloscope.

But the touch screen wins out as the favorite feature among the Tek Scholars.

“It's very intuitive for us to move things around on a screen. Oscilloscopes are all about manipulating waveforms, so being able to do that with your hand instead of moving things with knobs like it's an Etch-a-Sketch, is so much easier,” says Brian Benavidez, junior in electrical and computer engineering.

But having a cool end-product is not the only goal. Students get a chance to experience what it takes to bring a project from conception to prototype. Along the way the students also gained a deeper understanding of tasks like designing printed circuit boards and programming microcontrollers.

 “In classes and labs you have predetermined projects that have been done many times before. This is all new. It’s very different from class work and gives you the experience to be ready for future internships and jobs,” says Aidan Daly-Jensen, sophomore in electrical and computer engineering.

Benavidez says that although he really wanted to have the opportunity to get the kind of experience the Collaboratory provides, he was at first overwhelmed when he was accepted.

“I didn't think that I would have the skills necessary at this point to make a product, but then I realized the program isn't necessarily just about that. It's really been a tool for learning as well as a job,” he says, explaining that Don Heer, coordinator of the program, provides a supportive environment that allows the students focus on improving their skills rather than worrying about making mistakes.

The Tektronix Foundation has a decades-long partnership with Oregon State to give students work-relevant experiences. The Collaboartory is one of three engineering programs that are funded by their recent $75,000 gift. This gift brings The Campaign for OSU closer to the university’s goal of raising $1 billion. So far, donors have committed more than $925 million, including more than $325 million in support of student and faculty programs.

Greenley, who also serves as the university liaison for Tektronix, says the company has a focus on hiring locally. Most of their new engineering hires come from Oregon State, which is also his alma mater (BS ‘99, MS ‘01).

“I like to see that we've got strong relationships with several universities, but specifically Oregon State, because I know there's a huge wealth of engineering talent there,” Greenley says.