IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 49, NO. 3, AUGUST 2006355
An Active Methodology for Teaching
Electronic Systems Design
Joaquín Cerdá Boluda, Marcos Antonio Martínez Peiró, Miguel Ángel Larrea Torres, Rafael Gadea Gironés, and
Ricardo José Colom Palero
Abstract—The study of programmable logic devices (PLDs) is
one of the more accessible branches of microelectronics, given the
conceptual simplicity and relative ease with which implementation
resources can be found that enable fairly large projects to be un-
dertaken. The Circuit and Electronic Systems Design course—of-
fered as part of the telecommunication engineering study plan at
the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Valencia, Spain—teaches
digital design methods based on PLDs. This subject implies an un-
derstanding of structures and resources and design methods based
on hardware description languages (HDLs). Given the broad and
essentially practical nature of the course, it was decided to develop
new resources to aid active classroom teaching. These resources
include material for self-teaching so that the student can acquire
practical design skills when working away from the classroom. A
procedure has been designed for student evaluation that is based
on moderately difficult practical designs that have been developed
added motivation for students as they find themselves tackling real
problems associated with digital design. Evaluation is structured
ified designs, and hardware-oriented physical implementation.
Index Terms—Electronic design automation (EDA), field-pro-
grammable gate array (FPGA), hardware description language
(HDL), programmable logic devices (PLDs), VHDL language.
programmable logic devices (PLDs) and electronic design au-
tomation (EDA) tools have enabled students to design moder-
ately complex logical systems productively and then implement
and test them in-circuit, all at very little cost. This possibility of
implementation was not feasible using traditional approaches,
such as discrete normalized components or classic VLSI tech-
niques. Asa result, thesetechniques are beingprogressivelyrel-
egated in current study plans.
To establish what should be the minimum level of knowl-
edge for an electronic engineer is a difficult task. The objective
should not be simply teaching students to become simple users
of a given EDA. Students should understand the application and
fundamentals of a system and be able to compare one EDA with
inevitable migration between systems. EDA independency im-
plies a multidiscipline training (electronic and manufacturing
HE teaching of digital electronics has been revolutionized
overthe past decade. The development and introduction of
Manuscript received September 23, 2005; revised April 4, 2006. Develop-
ment of the multimedia application was supported by Polytechnic University of
Valencia Educational Innovation Project 11034.
The authors are with the ETSI Telecomunicación, Departamento de Inge-
niería Electrónica, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, 46022 Valencia, Spain
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TE.2006.879247
technologies, computer science, logic design, etc.) and, above
all, the development of an intellectual maturity and initiative in
the analysis and synthesis of logical systems. This intellectual
approach constitutes real know-how.
In an ideal case, the desired approach to teaching electronic
system design is to spend a large number of hours in the labora-
tory. However, this practical work is difficult when the number
of students grows . In this sense, the challenge is to find an
efficient method of teaching the subject . Existing literature
gives some ideas to face particular aspects of this problem ,
, focusing on design techniques or industrial considerations.
In the last few years a great effort has been made to explore the
convenience of using multimedia resources as teaching mate-
rials –. However, existing literature lacks of a global per-
spective, showing the process of designing a course in all its
theoretical and practical aspects. In this paper, some of the so-
lutions that the authors have found through their experience in
teaching the subject of electronic circuit and systems design are
II. TEACHING APPROACH
Electronic circuit and systems design is part of the third year
of the Telecommunications Engineering degree curriculum
taught at the Higher Technical School of Telecommunications
Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Va-
lencia, Spain. This subject is an obligatory core subject with
60 hours of teaching divided equally between lectures and
laboratory sessions. The total number of students is about 300,
divided into four theoretical classes. The practical sessions are
performed in laboratory in student groups of about 20 students.
The course teaches general concepts that enable students to ac-
quire a global vision of microelectronics and specific concepts
that prepare students for future courses in the subject .
The syllabus covers the following objectives.
A. Introduction to the Technology and Manufacturing of
This topic offers a global and specific vision of applica-
tion-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). The technologies and
economies of flat process manufacturing are presented.
B. Design Techniques
emphasized. These tools enable the student to use synthesizers
to move from a description domain that is closely linked with
0018-9359/$20.00 © 2006 IEEE
356 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 49, NO. 3, AUGUST 2006
functioning behavior to a structural domain. Choosing the cor-
rect tool is not easy, and various factors must be taken into ac-
count, including the following.
• The tool should be easy to use. It should not require
long hours of instruction and should offer efficient online
her own computer without restrictions. Student computers
may be old and slow.
• The tool must offer many possibilities with various HDLs,
e.g., generic, configuration, VHDL and Verilog languages,
FSM detection, test-bench generation, etc.
• It must enable students to perform complextasks with eco-
nomical programmable devices and include low-cost de-
• The tool should speedily compile simple designs since this
speed quickens the pace of practice sessions.
• It should offer a project structure that is easy to export.
• It must include diagram output, simulator, time analysis,
and a floor plan editor. These tools must be simple to use,
yet comprehensive. The tool must be fairly representative
may encounter in the future.
• The synthesizer should allow the student to see what is
being synthesized. Logic gates and lookup tables (LUTs)
are the most interesting options.
or parallel ports.
• The insertion of macros should be intuitive and should not
require changes in the normal design flow. These macros
should be parametrical, but usable by VHDL and Verilog
without tricks or shortcuts for simulation and synthesis.
• The tool must interface easily with HDL simulators and
synthesizers from other manufacturers.
C. Design Technological Support
This topic involves the study of ASIC programmables
(complex programmable logic devices (CPLD) and field-pro-
grammable logic devices (FPGA)). It is necessary to select
devices used by students in previous courses such as simple
programmable logic devices (SPLDs). A designer can exploit
the best features of design in terms of area, speed, and con-
sumption, only by having adequate background knowledge.
The choice of CPLD and FPGA programmable devices over
ASIC semicustom masked programs (gate arrays, standard
cells) is justified by cost. The various design tools and kits
and the physical devices make a more ambitious approach
impractical. Both design flows are increasingly similar in
terms of methodologies, verification systems, design inputs,
RTL description styles, and synthesizers. Consequently, the
students easily adapt to working with masked program ASIC
devices. The main target is to give a complete perspective of
the system-on-chip design methodology .
D. Design Criteria
This topic covers testing the reliability of a design. Students
need to have a good understanding of the timing hazards that
can arise in combinational and sequential circuits and to estab-
lish margins for activation and positive retention. Students will
have received a digital education center on reading transition,
Fig. 1. Opening screen of the multimedia application.
operation, and true tables. They must begin to understand that
design is more demandingwhen implementing a programmable
physical device or PCB.
E. Design Structuring and Specification
This topic helps students learn how to tackle fairly complex
designs. Students learn that systems are organized so that part
of the system handles the data, and another part of the system
controls when, and under what conditions, the data should be
handled(Datapath and Controlpath,respectively).Studentsalso
incrementally learn to respect form and specify digital systems
clearly. The very reason for the existence of hardware descrip-
tion languages is to ensure that information can be easily ex-
changed between teams of engineers. The same aim should be
clear in specification. The algorithmic state machine diagrams
(ASMDs) seems to be the best option.
III. COMPLIMENTARY MATERIALS
With the aim of centralizing the contents and increasing the
level of motivation, support material for developing the theoret-
ical concepts and undertaking designs with programmable de-
vices has been prepared .
A. Material for Theoretical Classes
Theoretical classes are given in lecture rooms using video
projectors. All of the principal themes within the subject are
presented in PowerPoint presentations, which are shown in the
lecture room and made available to students in a compilation
that includes additional comments and explanations .
In addition to the PowerPoint slides, some literature has re-
lated the benefits of including media resources in the material
of a subject , , so that a multimedia application  that
encompasses all of the theoretical subject content (Fig. 1) has
been developed. This application was written with the support
of Polytechnic University of Valencia Educational Innovation
The application took two years to complete. Three students
worked on it as a final degree project, following directions of
the teachers. For the implementation, Macromedia Director 8
which were specially important, were developed using design
programs such as Adobe Photoshop or 3-D Studio MAX.
CERDÁ BOLUDA et al.: AN ACTIVE METHODOLOGY FOR TEACHING ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS DESIGN357
Fig. 2. Photograph shows the presentation of one of the themes in the multi-
Fig. 3. Photograph shows the opening of the configuration page for the self-
oretical classes, complete with comments, drawings, graphics,
and animations (Fig. 2). In addition, a self-assessment system
that enables students to evaluate their level of comprehension
was included (Fig. 3) .
B. Material for Practical Classes
EDA tools increase the productivity of a designer and enable
more complex logical circuits to be tackled. However, they
require consideration of issues related to timing as well as
The student version of Altera MAX+PLUS II was selected
as the most suitable EDA. Altera MAX+PLUS II enables
highly abstract designs to be introduced using graphic descrip-
tions, diagrams, and text, as a subset of VHDL for synthesis.
The software is used with the Altera UP1 educational board,
and designs, where possible, are verified in-circuit in the
A prepared text  uses demonstrations and design pro-
posals to explain the use of the tool and programmable devices.
In addition, an expansion module has been designed for
Fig. 4. Photograph shows the boards used in the practical sessions. The UP1
altera board (left) is used with the MEPUA1 board (right).
the Altera board: MEPUA1 (Fig. 4). This board connects
the FLEX10k expansion buses with the Altera UP1 board.
MEPUA1 expansion modules are also explained in the text.
Student evaluation is difficult because the large number of
students makes individual tutorials impossible, and the com-
plex concept of “system” is difficult to digest in the limited
time available to students before their evaluation. The approach
and evaluation of examinations requires a serious reflection and
study by teachers .
As part of the preparation for examinations, a new publica-
tion  has been prepared that includes 43 problems and so-
lutions taken from previous practical examinations. These ex-
ercises emphasize a concept that has been especially stressed
in recent courses—structured blocks that cooperate in time and
space. This book of exercises includes a CD with solutions to
exercises for MAX+PLUS II, as well as the student version of
IV. EVALUATION METHODOLOGY
The methodology includes three methods of evaluation.
The basic characteristics of each method and the theoretical
objectives, advantages and disadvantages, are explained. The
methods are based, respectively, on designs that are completely
specified (top-down method); partially specified (bottom-up
method); and physically implemented (hardware-oriented
method). The three methods are described to draw various
conclusions. Examples can be found in .
A. Bottom-Up Methodology: Partially Specified Design
ification of a complex digital system . Initially, the details
of a design are implemented (bottom) and then the specification
and the resolution complexity (up) are increased, until the final
design is reached.
An example of PSD method can be seen with the design of
students should be motivated to explore other subject areas that
are important in the field of telecommunications, such as signal
filtering, and draw on knowledge acquired from their studies
358 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 49, NO. 3, AUGUST 2006
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF THE THREE METHODS OF EVALUATION
on signal digitalization, which also forms a part of the degree
course. The educational advantage is that students will better
understand the concepts of sampling, impulse, and response
in a linear time-invariant (LTI) system, and the limitations of
working and activity frequencies.
B. Top-Down Methodology: Completely Specified
The top-down methodology starts from a complete specifica-
tion of the system. This system is usually an innovative one so
that the student can comment on the specifications. This type
of evaluation is termed a “learning exam.” Part of the design is
given as data, and the student can be offered simulated results
to verify. An example can be a self-timed parallel multiplier,
containing some data that was not presented during theoretical
C. Physical Methodology: Hardware-Oriented Design (HOD)
This methodology uses an initially simple design since an
image of the complete digital system is not necessary. The
system is implemented on two boards as described in a previous
section. The student uses tools to synthesize the design, copies
it to a programmable device, and then verifies the simulation
and correct working of the system. In this way, self-evaluation
is completed in the laboratory. An example would be the
step-by-step design of a motor control system.
Table I shows the main characteristics of each of the three
established methods. While each model has advantages and
disadvantages, the proposed methodology contains the majority
of the theoretical points covered in the subject. The advantages
of this methodology can be seen in later courses when students
demonstrate their ability to understand microelectronic circuits
and the design of advanced digital systems. Students inter-
viewed in polls positively rate the teaching mix of theoretical
and practical sessions. This high level of satisfaction is difficult
to achieve in these types of courses.
Fig. 5. General satisfaction with the subject by students given in an opinion
V. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The Circuit and Electronic System Design course offered
as part of the telecommunication engineering study plan at
the Polytechnic University of Valencia teaches digital design
methods based on PLDs. This subject implies an understanding
of structures and resources and design methods based on HDLs.
Some materials were developed to aid active classroom
teaching and self-teaching so that the student can acquire
practical design skills when working away from the classroom.
The first of these materials is a complete set of PowerPoint
slides used in class and available to students on the Internet.
As well as the slides, a multimedia tutorial has been developed
that explains the fundamental concepts of the course in a
dynamic, simple, and attractive format. The tutorial includes
a self-assessment section. Two manuals have been prepared
as a third recourse for students. They offer greater depth and
provide examples of design solutions.
For student evaluation, an active and practical methodology
based on the production of certain designs has been developed.
These designs can be separated into three categories, depending
on their level of specification.
Students finishing the course have acquired a good foundation
CERDÁ BOLUDA et al.: AN ACTIVE METHODOLOGY FOR TEACHING ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS DESIGN 359
and are better able to tackle the subsequent courses. Further-
conclusions were drawn from student polls. Results of the last
four years are given in Fig. 5.
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Valencia, Spain: Editorial
Joaquín Cerdá Boluda was born in Xàtiva, Spain. He received the M.Sc. and
working towards the M.Sc. degree in physics at the same university.
Since 2000, he has been a Lecturer in the Department of Electronic Engi-
neering at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, working in digital design,
programmable devices, and hardware description languages. His main research
interests are fundamental physics, microelectronics, and cellular automata.
Marcos Antonio Martínez Peiró was born in Oliva, Spain. He received the
M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees from the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Spain,
in 1993 and 2000, respectively.
Since 1993, he has been a Lecturer in the Department of Electronics at the
Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. During the first half of 1999, he was a
Researcher student with the Department of Electrical Engineering, Linköping
University, Sweden. Currently, he is Titular Professor in the Telecommunica-
tions Engineering School of the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. His areas
of research interest include VLSI signal processing, digital filter design, and
custom digital signal processing for video applications.
Miguel Ángel Larrea Torres received the B.S. degree in electrical industrial
engineering and the M.Sc. degree from the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia
(UPV), Valencia, Spain, in 1984 and 1987, respectively.
Since 1988, he has been with UPV as a Lecturer, teaching VLSI design skills
techniques at the ETSI de Telecomunicación, newly founded. His main concern
and research interests are in microelectronics and the related CAD.
Rafael Gadea Gironés received the B.S. degree in industrial engineering and
the Ph.D. degree in industrial engineering from the Universidad Politécnica de
Valencia, Valencia, Spain, in 1990 and 2000, respectively.
Since 1992, he has been in the Department of Electronic Engineering at the
Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, working in digital design, programmable
devices, and hardware description languages. His main research interests are
microelectronics, neural networks, image compression, and recently cellular
Ricardo José Colom Palero was born in Cullera, Spain. He received the M.Sc.
and Ph.D. degrees from the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Valencia,
Spain, in 1993 and 2001, respectively.
Since 1993, he has been a Lecturer in the Department of Electronics at the
Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, where he is currently a Titular Professor
in the Telecommunications Engineering School. His areas of research interest
systems, and custom digital signal processing for audio and video applications.