Late last fall, professor of electrical engineering and computer science Jakub Szefer bought a Coke machine off Craigslist. After driving into the middle of Hartford with a truck and handing over a couple hundred dollars, he returned to New Haven equipped with the new device to use in his “Introduction to Computer Engineering” class.
The course, which he will be teaching for the second time, introduces students to the theoretical principles underlying the design and programming of simple processors that can perform algorithmic computational tasks. But this time, the vending machine will add a twist to one of the course’s required labs. In a hands-on activity, students will be required to program the soda machine with logic design and basic computer architecture principles in order to dispense an actual soda. He added that he hopes the change will allow students to better understand how electrical engineering is necessary for so many seemingly simple devices.
Besides the vending machine, Szefer also purchased two ATMs and a snowboarding arcade game for use in the class. Only the vending machine will be used this semester because they are still working with the other software to customize it for the course, he said.
Szefer said that he hopes the machine will keep students engaged and interested, and remind them of the applicability of engineering programming in everyday life.
“Sometimes we become so enamored with elements that define our quality of life that we become disconnected with the fact that it is the theory and fundamentals of science and engineering that make everything work,” Deputy Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Vincent Wilczynski said in an email. “The EE Vending Machine advertises that connection in a very visible and memorable way. People who may have never thought about the innards of a vending machine before may now realize that there is a whole School of Engineering at work inside [a vending machine] in a quest to apply thermodynamics, materials science, automation, control theory, digital logic, power distribution and more.”
On Monday, over 60 students packed themselves into Room 111 of 17 Hillhouse on the first day of class and watched Szefer present a video announcing the use of the soda machine. Szefer said the number of students was a sharp increase from last year when fewer than 40 students shopped his class. However, he said he does not attribute this increase to the use of the soda machine, but to an overall increase in the number of undergraduate EE majors.
Colleen McCormack ’17, who recently decided to pursue a degree in the joint electrical engineering and computer science major and is taking the course to fulfill major requirements, said she was somewhat confused by the presentation of the vending machine and what the class’s future lab work would entail. Still, she said she was excited to find out its purpose in the course.
Dante Archangeli ’17, who attended the first class session, said he is unsure whether he will take the class, but thinks that the combination of programming with electronics is intriguing.
“I’d like to learn more about computers and robots and micro-controllers,” he said. “Maybe this will help.”
Connor Durkin ’16 said he will definitely be taking the class and is excited by the prospect of using the vending machine.
“At a school like Yale where, even in the engineering department, realizable applications can be few and far between, it is exciting to see professors create a tangible real world … task for the students,” Durkin said in an email. “It is easy to write a few ‘applications’ of what we are learning on the whiteboard, but much more exciting to do something that we can see and touch.”
Durkin added that the discipline of electrical engineering is ideal for creating applications that serve real world purposes. In past classes, Durkin has made heart monitors, audio amplifiers and robots.
“When an EE course is this creative before the course even begins, stand by for a great class,” Wilczynski said. “All in all, we soon expect some vending companies to borrow some of the best SEAS ideas — it would only be fair.”
EENG 201 has no prerequisites.
Correction, Jan. 14: A previous version of this article misstated the title of Deputy Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Vincent Wilcynski.