The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Peer Learning Inspires Peerless Teaching


When the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently introduced an innovative concept in which student volunteers teach their peers about technical subjects near and dear to their hearts, nobody knew for sure what the response would be. It’s remarkable, then, that within days after the seven voluntary courses were announced, 58 participants signed up. Make that number 59, if you count the robot named Emma5 being designed and constructed in one of the classes. The program is called the M5 Experimental College, nicknamed M5exco and pronounced “Mexco.”

M5 is a facility opened in April of 2008 that gives ECE students a place of their own with access to electronic and computing parts, test and prototyping equipment, an audio engineering workstation, meetings rooms, computing resources, and white boards galore.

Now, with M5exco, M5 has been transformed into a learning hub where students and faculty members volunteer to teach extracurricular courses on topics such as the Pure Data programming environment for audio, video, and graphical processing, and Ruby on Rails, a framework that allows for the rapid development of web applications and individual or team-based design projects.

“Our students have all sorts of knowledge and interests and skills that are hidden,” explains ECE Department Head Kris Hollot. “M5exco unwraps those and allows the students to express them. It furthermore provides a dynamic of students teaching students that must be very different than the normal classroom experience.”

With the guidance of Undergraduate Program Director Baird Soules, who runs M5 with the help of six student staffers, the concept of M5exco was floated last spring, and students were asked to submit proposals for courses they wanted to teach.

“One of the ideas behind M5 is to build an intellectual community amongst the students,” says Soules. “M5exco does this by bringing out their skills and passions for various technical topics not expressly covered in the ECE curriculum.”

One good example is “Design Project 1-2-3” (DP123), the only M5exco course that can be taken for credit.

“The class takes a bunch of budding engineers and puts them into this dynamic, multi-team approach to solving the problems of building a robot,” says ECE graduate student Ric Zanonni, who teaches the course with Soules. “What drew me to M5 and the experimental college is that this is my kind of place. I’ve always been an experimenter and a tinkerer, and that’s what DP123 is really all about. I’m enjoying fostering that inquisitiveness.”

When Emma5 is up and running, she will feature a modified wheelchair platform, video cameras for “seeing,” a halo shield to detect and avoid objects, and even the capability to “talk.” Emma will be operated remotely from a control center called “Houston Mission Control” in M5.  Emma’s speech is triggered when people in the environment speak to her, their comments going back to Houston in a voice-over-IP audio stream. Students in M5 respond by sending Emma text messages, which are transformed by a text-to-speech module into her robotic voice.

“So people will actually think the robot is responding,” laughs Zanonni. “They don’t know there’s somebody behind the curtain.”

Another person operating “behind the curtain” is undergrad Sean Klaiber, who teaches the M5exco course in “Sound Modeling and Creation Using Pure Data.” He is teaching his class to do the kinds of audio manipulation done by the Beatles in “Revolution Number 9,” inspired by the musique concrète style of the 1950s. The Beatles’ studio recording was greatly enriched by added sound clips, tape loops, reverse sound effects, and sound modification techniques such as stereo panning and fading. Pure Data updates the magnetic tape era of the Beatles to the computers of today.

“I’m designing and building a tape manipulation mechanism by which I can very simply record lots of things and then modify them in any way I want and then create my own product,” Klaiber says about the kind of project being done in his class.

Undergraduate Brendan Kemp is teaching Ruby on Rails, an open source web application framework for the Ruby programming language.

“We have 14 students signed up,” says Kemp about his class. “One person just wants another language for his resume, even though he acknowledges he probably won’t ever use Rails. He just wants to know about it. Other people are interested in web development, and they’ve been hearing a lot about Rails. This is the best and easiest place for them to learn it.”

From her perch as Soules’ “right-hand person in M5,” Undergraduate Staff Coordinator Jessica Lau is in the cat-bird’s seat to see the effects of M5exco: “It’s really changing the culture of the students in ECE. Before, we would just go to class, learn what was required, and then get out. Now, the students put that learning to work doing things we really care about. In the process, we’re also getting better prepared for a career.”