Circuit Training

Since the 1970s, electrical engineering students have been building electrical circuits using breadboards, relatively inexpensive plastic boxes that require no soldering of electronic components or wires. But Industry Professor Michael Knox wanted more for students at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. He envisioned a one-stop shop, where they could design, fabricate, and test their own sophisticated circuit boards--experimenting and learning each step of the way.

Although it didn’t happen overnight, Knox’s vision has recently been realized. The basement level of 5 MetroTech Center now houses a multi-bench prototyping lab, which is open to students not only from the School of Engineering but throughout the entire university.

“We began amassing equipment several years ago when Professor Jonathan Chao and Professor Sertac Artan were developing a small, fully implantable device that used sensors to map seizure activity in the brain,” Knox recalled. “We started out with just one bench, and when students found out about it, they began knocking at the door.” They came eager to build and test circuit boards for a wide variety of projects—most involving surface mount components requiring assembly techniques using a microscope, tweezers and a steady hand.

The new prototyping lab directly supports several student clubs at the engineering school including Patent Pending and the student branch of the IEEE.  For example, the IEEE recently ran a series of soldering workshops in the new space and Patent Pending recently sponsored a weekend-long “hackathon” where several teams used the lab to develop working models of their ideas. As faculty advisor for Patent Pending, Knox also works closely with the club, whose charter is help students design and build innovative products across all the engineering disciplines. “Having an open facility for students to create custom circuit boards encourages all types of creativity,” Knox said. There is, he explained, a playful component to electrical engineering. “Soldering is fun. Being able to mechanically etch your own circuit board is fun,” he asserted. “Sure, you can work as an electrical engineer in a company and simply design a circuit and then hand it off to a technician to fabricate it, but having an opportunity to fabricate and assemble your own boards provides a deeper understanding of the intricacies needed in high performance circuit design. Every engineer should be exposed to this type of hands-on activity.”

One enormous benefit of having that type of exposure at a school lab is that if a student makes a mistake, he or she can simply try again. Students who use the benches at 5 MetroTech do so under the watchful eye of ECE technician Robert Rivera and graduate student, Aryeh Katz. Rivera also oversees several other ECE laboratories including the circuits and electronics labs for undergraduates. A warm and engaging presence, Rivera is happy to show visitors the space’s sophisticated LPKF Rapid Prototyping unit, which mechanically etches the boards, and the soldering and hot-air rework stations or to help them troubleshoot a project not going as smoothly as hoped.

Rivera and Knox want to get the word out that the lab is even open over the summer, and interested students can contact them by sending an email to prototype@nyu.edu to reserve a slot.

“We’re looking forward to seeing what students come up with,” Knox said. “We hope that some possible Inno/Vention entries and startup companies may result from work done here.”