By Valerie Luu
In Baskin Engineering room 140, home of the new Undergraduate Hardware Lab (UHL), fifth-year computer engineering major Andrew Parra is working on a robot ring-bearer. Using parts from a “2 Fast 2 Furious” toy car, Parra fiddles around with a remote control that would move his creation down the aisle for his friend and bride-to-be, Rachel Pasetes, a former UC Santa Cruz student.
“She loves robots,” Parra said. “She doesn’t know half of the stuff [that the robot will do], just that we’re making a robotic ring-bearer. We’re keeping it a surprise.”
The UHL is a result of a student-initiated effort to create a space for School of Engineering (SOE) undergraduate students to use high-tech equipment to work on independent projects outside of class. The lab opened on Feb. 1 and is available exclusively to undergraduate SOE students.
Fourth-year Kevin Nelson is using the lab to create a music controller for his computer, a project that combines his interest in computer engineering — his major — and electronic music, his minor. Nelson describes the UHL as invaluable because it provides resources outside of class labs.
“It promotes individual creativity [by providing] facilities for students to explore ideas that they might have, that they might not be able to pursue in a classroom because of assignment constraints and lab availability,” Nelson said.
“The goal is to keep students interested in having fun with projects,” said John Burr, former president of the SOE Honor Society. “This is a chance for people to play instead of just doing academic exercises.”
Andrew Parra, a member of the SOE Honor Society, said that the idea for an undergraduate lab began three years ago with some members of his organization. Two years ago, Parra spearheaded the project by contacting companies and alumni for equipment and monetary donations, as well as finding a space on campus to house the lab. Other SOE organizations, such as the UCSC branch of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE), contributed to the project.
Since undergraduate SOE hardware labs are restricted to class use, students are not able to use that space to work on extracurricular projects. But the UHL gives students the opportunity to experiment with electronics, said Laura Stelzner, president of SWE.
“We have a huge dropout rate, so this is a very good thing for freshman and sophomores, because they don’t get stuff where they fiddle around with hardware,” Stelzner said. “You don’t get to touch electronic circuits until the end of sophomore or junior year.”
To become a member of the UHL, one must be an undergraduate SOE student. For the winter quarter, the fee to join is $5, which increases to $10 thereafter, all of which goes toward maintenance of the lab. After students sign a contract and go through a verification process that proves they know how to use the lab equipment, the new members will get a key code to gain access to the UHL, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The UHL currently has 20 members.
Through the efforts of Parra and other students the UHL received a $2,500 donation from a UCSC alumni, a $4,000 computer from Hewlett-Packard and a grant of $100,000 from Agilent Technologies to purchase brand-new equipment.
The money was used to outfit the UHL with power supplies, volt meters, frequency generators and soldering tools — basic equipment Parra said could be found in most labs. What sets the undergraduate SOE class labs and the UHL apart is a $30,400 oscilloscope, an analysis tool that measures electric and electronic signals considered to be the most prized acquisition for the lab.
“It measures high frequencies [up to 3 gigahertz], which is impressive for any lab, and it runs Windows XP, which none really do,” Parra said. “We don’t know how to use it. One of our professors is toying with it and will talk to us about it. It’s a curiosity issue — we all want to learn about it and how to use it.”
Guest lectures, tutorials and books are some of the resources available at the UHL to help students learn how to use the equipment.
“I hope to see this lab turn into a tinkering lab where the curiosity gets the better of them,” Parra said. “It’s a learning environment, so I hope that student’s curiosity drives them to solve all their questions.”
Jessica Higgins, a third-year computer engineering major, will take advantage of the UHL.
“Before this lab, I wasn’t interested in finding personal projects [because] it’s too hard to do without the equipment,” Higgins said. “Now that it’s here, I’m more interested to see what I can do with electronics. I’m sure I’ll find something. That’s why I joined.”
_The Undergraduate Hardware Lab is located in Baskin Engineering, Room 140. For more information, go to hardware.ucsc.edu, or contact UHL lab manager Andrew Parra at firstname.lastname@example.org._