Bringing industry experience into the engineering classroom

April 20, 2022

Seeing the future isn’t normally possible. However, Arizona State University students taking the Embedded Systems Design Project II course, EGR 314, have the unique opportunity to see what their engineering future holds through mentorship from industry professionals who took the same course as ASU students.

The alumni mentors agree that EGR 314 was one of the most impactful courses they took as undergraduates in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — it was where they got their first glimpse into industry practices and gained critical experience that prepared them for real-world engineering. EGR 314 Students of the Fur-ever Safe project presented their concept to an industry mentor at the mid-semester design reviews. The premise of their project is to design and create a plant system to provide red, green or blue light to a plant, detect water levels, display the plant’s information for the user via an LCD screen and to protect the plant from animals or pets by using a spray bottle. Photo by Sona Srinarayana/ASU Download Full Image

Taking the initiative to engineer better robotics education

Course developer Shawn Jordan, an associate professor of engineering, was tasked with redesigning the course in 2011 when he first joined The Polytechnic School, one of the seven Fulton Schools at ASU. He saw the impact industry mentorships were making across ASU’s Polytechnic campus at the senior capstone level and decided to implement similar opportunities within his junior-level courses. He now teaches the course with his colleague Daniel Aukes, an assistant professor of engineering.

Each semester, Jordan and Aukes give technical minimum requirements, define a class-wide context — in this case, wearable robotics, selected in part because of Aukes’ heavy research focus in wearable assistive devices — and allow students to take control of defining their own projects as long as they fit loosely within the constraints of wearable robotics. This was “an intentional course decision,” Jordan says, “because it supports students to differentiate themselves on their resumes based on their own interests.”

Jordan and Aukes infuse various research-based educational techniques from the world of gifted education, which focus on offering curriculum for students at different abilities and knowledge levels so all students can grow through an engaging learning environment.

One of these techniques that Jordan and Aukes call an “in-class checkoff” helps students overcome technical hurdles such as connecting to a microcontroller, using an oscilloscope or debugging code for the first time.

“This helps make individual learning experiences, like homework, more focused on learning than technical frustrations,” Aukes says.

They implement these techniques at all stages of the course, whether students are programming their embedded systems, designing their devices or learning how to work together on teams.

“One of the most important aspects of the course is challenging students to communicate and work in teams using modern collaboration technology,” Jordan says. “This helps make everyone successful and ensures they are contributing to their team’s design.”

A cornerstone of the course is the mid-semester design reviews that allow students to present their designs — such as wearable robots in the spring 2022 semester — to various mentors who are industry members from Intel, Microchip, Texas Instruments, Fender and other major companies with operations in Arizona. Mentors provide students with encouragement, design and structural suggestions and ideas for improving efficiency in a format similar to how they would receive feedback in industry settings.

Exposing students to industry feedback at the junior level offers students a more seamless transition between the junior and senior year “so they are more able to succeed in the capstone setting,” says Jordan, noting a student’s senior year is when they typically encounter industry-sponsored projects.

Design review — a project-based midterm

One of the benefits of the mid-semester design review is that it allows students to integrate efficiency into their designs — something they may not have considered initially.

One of this semester’s mentors is Travis Marshall, an alumnus from ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 2014. Now working as a mixed signal electrical engineer at Fender, Marshall challenges students to lean into design constraints and helps them understand the importance of efficiency within their designs.

“I ask questions like, ‘Can you make this smaller?’ ‘Can you make it more efficient?’ ‘Can you make it cost less?’ and offer ideas to support these questions,” Marshall says. “These are questions we ask ourselves as industry professionals.”

After the design reviews, third-year electrical systems major Mike Femiani altered the hardware and coding in his wearable infrared distance sensor to enable better efficiency. His team’s device allows users to automatically survey distances and angles at construction sites.

“This is the closest thing we’ll have to a real-world industry environment,” Femiani says. “It was nice to have access to them and their expertise and reaffirm that this is what it’s like in a professional environment.”


Fourth-year robotics and autonomous systems 4+1A 4+1 degree is an accelerated degree that allows a student to earn both bachelor's and master's degrees in five years. student Sage Furman and her teammates (pictured left) are working on a device that uses sensors to deploy a hood to protect the user based on weather conditions. She is grateful for their mentor’s advice because without it she says they would’ve burnt their entire circuit and would have had to start over.

“We were faced with a major setback after the design review, but because prior engineering courses have given us practice in overcoming obstacles, we were able to adjust faster this time and make the necessary changes quickly,” Furman says. “We can leave this class and go into industry with those skills.”

Industry mentor Wade Adams, an analog validation engineer, began interning at Microchip as an undergraduate student at ASU and has been working there ever since. As a student, he says he was exposed to all of the processes that he uses in the field now, from designing circuit boards to making schematics and working with test equipment like oscilloscopes and other measurement equipment.

“This class specifically was probably the biggest advantage I had when I was a student,” he says.

Gil Ruiz’s project benefited from the schematics experiences of Adams and other mentors. Ruiz, a third-year robotics and autonomous systems major, says along with valuable schematics feedback, he was given sound reasoning as to why those changes were necessary. He and his team were able to adjust the schematic for their device, which allows users who are visually impaired to have awareness of an object approaching them and of the distance and speed at which it is approaching.

Ruiz, Furman and Femiani agree that having their designs verified by professionals gave them the encouragement that they were on the right track.

Continued focus on experience-based learning

At the ASU Polytechnic campus, evidence continues to support that project-based and experience-oriented learning is optimal for students as they enter industry endeavors.

ASU electrical engineering alumnus Jared Morton is a research and development engineer for Intel and has hired a number of new graduates. He believes that along with the collaboration between students and industry, it’s “the hands-on experience from classes like these that makes them unique and applies directly to the industry.”

Another mentor, engineering master’s degree alumnus Gerardo Rivera, an analog validation engineer at Texas Instruments, agrees that the skills he learned as a student in this course are frequently used in his day-to-day work.

James Larson, a communications engineer at drone startup Toofon, also continues to use skills he learned in the course. While pursuing his engineering degree at ASU, he worked as Jordan’s research assistant in studying project-based learning. Larson has since been supporting EGR 314 as a mentor.

“The project requirements that the students are designing to are actually the minimum requirements for accreditation as engineers, so many of these students are actually exceeding expectations for what is expected from engineers at this stage,” Larson says. “And by the time they end up in their engineering capstone course a year from now, they’re going to be ahead of everyone who hasn’t taken this class because they have this experience.”

The EGR 314 course will continue to support industry mentorships with goals to expand in the future. Jordan and Aukes plan to include more software and coding curriculum into their embedded systems design course, allowing students to have even more creative control of their projects and, ultimately, equipping them with more skills and experiences they can use to hit the ground running after graduation.

If you would like to be a design review mentor, contact Shawn Jordan.

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Sr communications specialist, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


School of Molecular Sciences Dean's Medalist is an inspiration to all

April 20, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Next month, Phoenix native and School of Molecular Sciences Dean’s medalist Aaron Jafar Hernandez Flores will graduate with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. Aaron Flores Aaron Jafar Hernandez Flores, chemistry major and spring 2022 School of Molecular Sciences Dean’s Medalist. Photo by Mary Zhu/ASU Download Full Image

“Very simply, Aaron is an inspiration,” said Ariel Anbar, President’s Professor in both ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences and the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Flores started working in the Anbar/METAL supergroup about three years ago as a student researcher and rapidly evolved into an advanced researcher performing beyond the capability of many graduate researchers.

“Everyone in the group has come to respect Aaron, not only because he is smart and determined, and skilled in the lab and with research, but also because he radiates an infectious enthusiasm for learning and for life that elevates everyone around him,” Anbar said.

Flores is a first-generation student from a Latino family who transferred to ASU from community college.

“Aaron has been independent, extremely hard-working and innovative,” said Gwyneth Gordon, assistant research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “He has suggested modifications to our standard operating procedures to make them more efficient. He is highly self-motivated and required very little supervision once trained and has actively been training other students and users of our facilities.”

Not surprisingly, in January 2022 Flores was awarded the Safety Award for all of the School of Eartha and Space Exploration for proposing and encouraging a substantial cleanup of the facility to remove old users’ samples and expired reagents. His pride in all his work, no matter the level, clearly comes through. 

Flores is very proactive in asking questions and is a highly independent thinker. He received a Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities grant in fall 2021 and has been working on a research project involving both elemental concentration and isotopic composition in bullets for forensic investigations of shootings for much longer than that. 

This impactful project required method development at many levels, including accurate and precise measurement of very low trace metal abundances in a high-lead matrix, as well as sampling method validation of multiple different sample types. 

Flores has a strong future career in chemistry. He gave an excellent and well-received oral presentation at the 2022 Winter Conference on Plasma Spectrochemistry and has begun work on turning his research into an article for the Journal of Analytical and Atomic Spectroscopy. 

He also gave an oral presentation virtually at the 2022 American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference. He used the winter conference as a networking opportunity and, as a result, has had a number of interviews with instrumentation companies for potential careers after graduation. 

Although the Anbar and METAL groups will miss Aaron greatly, they know he has a great future ahead of him. As important, he will be a role model and inspiration to others.  

Aaron Jafar Hernandez Flores

Aaron Jafar Hernandez Flores working in the lab. Photo by Mary Zhu/ASU

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in at ASU?

Answer: My “aha moment” was when I was a biology major at ASU West (campus), specifically the semester I was in genetics. During that time, I wanted to go to medical school but while working on my resume I took the opportunity to work at a microbiology lab. Microbiology wasn’t my interest, but I loved doing the research. This got me thinking back to my community college days when I loved my chemistry classes and decided to switch majors to chemistry and work in a chemistry lab at ASU Tempe. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I think one of the most important things I learned at ASU is that I am capable of great things. I know that sounds egotistical but it’s not like that at all. I learned that I was capable of great things, while working as a wet chemistry lab aide in professor Ariel Anbar’s lab. In that lab I was surrounded by amazing scientists, who I consider family now. I specifically want to shoutout to Gwyneth Gordon as she was my lab manager but more importantly she was my mentor, who always believed in me, trusted me and saw potential in me. Through her I got to experience many different opportunities and when I didn’t think I was capable of doing something or deserving of it, she was always there to push me and to remind that I was capable.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU as I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. My whole family lives in Arizona and this was the closest school to me, so this was the obvious choice. The most important reasons though are that because my family was here, I didn’t have to move out and pay rent, I just had long drives to school. The other reason is that I paid in state tuition.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My most important professor and more specifically mentor was Gwyneth Gordon. She taught me what I was capable of, but much more than that as well.

Aaron Flores

Left to right: Dorian Ronquillo-Jocom, Aaron Flores and Zoe Deahl. Flores is training two biochemistry students in the lab. Photo by Mary Zhu/ASU

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I mean that’s hard as everyone is doing different things, but I think in general the best thing to do is put yourself out there and get involved early. For example, I knew I wanted to work in a chemistry lab and do research, so I just tried to get as much experience as possible. To do that I tried to work in any lab that I could and reached out to several professors for opportunities regardless of whether they were above my level or experience because the worst they could do is say no to me. Apart from that, I would say to be open minded because sometimes things will come to you that you don’t expect. For example, I had no idea about the Anbar lab until Dr. Barbara Munk sent us emails about some jobs that were available on campus. One of them said chemistry so I just applied.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I mean honestly the lab I worked in as there were some spots to study in there that other students didn’t have access to so when I wanted to study in quiet that was the perfect place. As far as meeting friends and thinking about life the lab was also a great place as I considered all my colleagues as friends and got to ask them about life as well.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plans after graduating are to obtain a career in field service engineering and work in that for a while and then come back to pursue my PhD in computational chemistry.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: That’s a tough question as I think there are multiple important problems to solve but also $40 million sounds like a lot of money, but I don’t know if it’s enough to solve systemic issues. Since I can’t decide on one problem, I would say the top three problems for me are climate change, giving everyone in the world free education and battling systemic racism, in no particular order.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences