Online engineering exercises win top honor as learning aid

December 10, 2001

In 1995, when the World Wide Web was still a novelty, a Johns Hopkins University electrical engineering professor decided to tap this new technology as a teaching aid. At a time when other instructors were putting only class notes and reading assignments on the Web, Wilson J. Rugh began posting interactive multimedia exercises and quizzes to help students succeed in a popular but challenging area of engineering called Signals, Systems and Control.

Today, Rugh's free site offers 19 online learning modules that are being accessed by thousands of novice engineers around the world. Faculty members at some colleges incorporate Rugh's exercises into their curriculum; in other instances, engineering students log onto the exercises independently for learning assistance.

At the recent Frontiers in Education conference in Reno, Nev., engineering educators and industry executives paid tribute to Rugh's site, naming it the recipient of the 2001 Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Education Courseware. The award is sponsored by Johns Wiley & Sons, Autodesk, Math Works and Microsoft Research. The judging was supervised by the National Engineering Education Delivery System, also known as NEEDS.

Rugh's site, called "Demonstrations in Signals, Systems and Control," continues to operate on the Web at Although he oversees the project and approves its content, Rugh is quick to point out that he's received plenty of help in devising the software. "Basically," he says, "these interactive exercises have all been programmed by some of my best students, mainly undergraduates. In some cases, I've suggested that we take a concept the class is having trouble with and make a tool to help them learn. But in other cases, students have come up with their own ideas for online exercises. A lot of my brightest students just worked on this to help other students learn the concepts."

In announcing the award, the NEEDS organization noted that Rugh's online teaching modules, primarily mini-programs called Java applets, cover a wide range of concepts in signals, systems and control. "These well designed modules provide audio introductions to topics, interactive exercises and quizzes to assess learning," the announcement states. "The modules focus on concepts that are difficult to express, such as convolution, and those that are difficult to present, such as closed loop bandwidth. Interactive simulations serve to heighten understanding and provide meaningful examples. Demonstrations in Signals, Systems and Control is easily adaptable for use in classrooms everywhere."

As an educator, Rugh says he recognized early that the World Wide Web could serve as more than just a bulletin board for written material related to a course. "I felt from the beginning that it was equally important to utilize the computational power available on the Web," he says. "I wanted to create some interactive learning tools."

Rugh's goal was to use the Web to gives students hands-on experience with some of the concepts presented in textbooks and lectures. Some of these exercises allow students to use their computer's mouse to sketch electrical signals and see the outcome of various types of processing of these signals. The Web-based software performs the related mathematical operations. To enhance the site, Rugh hired Baltimore actress Cherie Weinert to record audio files that accompany many of the exercises. Some of the exercises conclude with quizzes, graded by the computer, to help students determine how well they understands the concepts.

In recent years, Rugh, who is the 2001 president of the 10,000-member IEEE Control Systems Society, has published an article about his online learning project in "Control Systems" magazine and has discussed it at professional conferences and educational workshops. The computer servers that house his Web site at Johns Hopkins indicate the exercises are being used throughout the United States and in many other countries, including Greece, Brazil, Korea, Germany and Poland. Rugh holds the copyright on the material jointly with Johns Hopkins. But he says, "This is not a commercial operation. It's grown on its own. It started as a hobby and has turned into the main focus of my work on campus."
Rugh, a Johns Hopkins faculty members for 32 years, is the Whiting School of Engineering's E.J. Schaefer Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He has received awards for excellence in teaching and for research. His Web project has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and funds associated with the E.J. Schaefer professorship.

Color image of Professor Rugh available; Contact Phil Sneiderman.

Related Links: Premier 2001 Award Announcement:

Wilson J. Rugh's Home Page:

Johns Hopkins Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering:

THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY OFFICE OF NEWS AND INFORMATION 3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100 Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843 Phone: (410) 516-7160 / Fax (410) 516-5251

Johns Hopkins University

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