2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Reimagining the digital lab with $30 FPGAs

Presented at Digital Circuits, Architecture, Embedded Systems

The laboratory exercises for an introductory digital electronics course would ideally be tangible, portable, and give students experience with professional tools and practices. The traditional options --- 74-series logic chips, computer simulation, and FPGA boards --- are each strong one aspect but compromise on the others. However, the recent development of inexpensive FPGAs has made it possible to achieve all three of these objectives simultaneously.

Five years ago, we redesigned our sophomore-level introductory digital logic course from scratch around a low cost ($15-$30) breadboardable FPGA. Every student receives a lab kit which contains an UPduino 3.1 FPGA development board, a breadboard, and the electronic components necessary to complete the labs. The professional FPGA design tools for the UPduino are free, lightweight, and cross-platform, meaning that every student can install the toolchain on their own computer. Combined with the portable lab kit, this makes it possible for students to work on their projects outside of the physical lab space.

The course topics and sequencing were also reorganized in order to tightly integrate the lecture and lab content and bridge to modern professional practice. Hardware description language concepts and FPGA architecture are introduced early in the course and revisited regularly. Labs in the second half of the semester focus on interfacing with external peripherals, and for the final project students have the option of implementing an Arm microprocessor or an open-ended project with off-the-shelf peripherals such as an arcade game or MIDI synthesizer. We find that this pedagogy increases motivation and interest for ECE and CS majors, and has attracted even a few non-majors.

This work describes the benefits and challenges of this approach, along with lessons learned over the last five years of teaching the redesigned course. Finally, we discuss some results from the course and include part lists and outlines needed to replicate this approach in similar courses.

  1. Steven Bell Tufts University [biography]
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