We recently got to speak with Professor Sergei Bezrukov, faculty member of the Department of Math & Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. An accomplished instructor fascinated with discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, and electrical engineering, Sergei has influenced countless students during his career. As expected, the IoT has opened up a new avenue for encouraging his students to think outside the box and push the bounds of creative problem-solving with cutting-edge technology—as well as drawing more students to his discipline. We contacted him to gain insight into the modern classroom in the age of the IoT.
Thanks for speaking with us, Professor. Tell us about your program and what you have your students up to at present.
Our program here is pretty small and provides a personal touch; I often have 10 or even less students per class. We are a combined Computer Science and Mathematics department and don’t formally offer Electrical Engineering. But we do microcontroller development and emphasize solving related programming problems in several of my courses that I designed to entice more students to come over and explore the department. Of course, you cannot avoid an Electrical Engineering education if you want to design electronic circuits at the electrical level. However, for firmware development in many cases one does not need to know all the technical details about how the hardware works internally. This is my part in student projects. The students basically just need to understand how their devices work at the logic level, how to access registers for configuration, and collect data and process it by using some programming language. That’s closer to Computer Science, I would say.
And to really encourage the students to put everything together on their own, what we do is have them complete one main individual design project that often involves wireless sensors, some kind of lighting control, sometimes radio controls, electrical, etc. Over the history of the course offerings, we’ve done about 40 projects—many of which are pushing into the realm of the IoT and addressing various problems the students are encountering.
I really like that you are purposely seeking a more diverse student set to be part of your community and design exploration. What Silicon Labs devices are you having the students use in these individual projects, and why did you pick them?
We use many Silicon Labs products, and many of them are our first-preference products. This includes low-power microcontrollers. I have intensive experience with your 8051 series and EFM32 series; they are very low power, actually the best in the market.
Other Silicon Labs products that we intensively use are various USB bridges from the CP21xx series, temperature/humidity sensors from the Si70xx series, and the Sub-1G Si44xx radios. These are really easy to handle, and I like them a lot. This year, I also introduced your Bluetooth and WiFi modules from the Blue Gecko and Wizard Gecko series in my courses, wrote several forum articles on them, and we plan new projects based on them.
What are some of your favorite student designs that come to mind since you started the projects in your class?
Many come to mind. A recent one I like is done by a student who lives on a large piece of property in a rural area. He and his family can’t visually see when mail has been delivered; the mailbox is actually about a 10-minute walk from the house, and there are lots of trees. So he created a device that utilizes an accelerometer to detect the moment that the mailbox was opened and wirelessly alerts the family that something is waiting for them there.
Another example is a Fraction Collector project we did for our Chemistry department. The device counts the amount of drops of solution collected in a tube and controls the carousel to bring the new tube under a sink according to the schedule set on a computer.
Let me also mention several weather stations similar to the one I described here, a device for climate control in a bathroom, and a wireless vehicle control based on radio modules that use your EZRadioPRO chips. Last, but not least, a Bluetooth-controlled coffee machine project. A student whose kitchen and bedroom are located on different floors in his house turns on his coffee machine from bed with his smartphone upon waking up, so the coffee is ready and warm the moment he wants it.
I always save my Bonus Question for the end. Where do you see the IoT going in the next 5–8 years given your unique experience as a researcher and educator?
I think we will see a lot more simple devices will appear which are self-powered and deliver small data as needed for very specific applications. Also, more development will be done in the energy harvesting area for devices can self-power themselves from native power sources like sunlight, heat, or vibration and transmit some data wirelessly. And finally, just more wireless everything as the distance capacity for wireless transmission continues to multiply and forces designers to extend boundaries further in their problem-solving.
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