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IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 50, NO.

3, AUGUST 2007

259

Continuous Improvement in Electronic


Engineering Education
Inmaculada Plaza, Senior Member, IEEE, and Carlos T. Medrano

AbstractIn this paper, the authors show an educational method


based on a specific application of the quality philosophy in the
development of digital electronics laboratory courses during two
academic years. The authors present two main goals: to provide
students with a methodology to manage problems and to start a
process of continuous improvement. The level of achievement and
the student evaluation show that the objectives have been fulfilled.
Furthermore, the interdisciplinary character of this method allows
for its application in other subjects.
Index TermsCooperative learning, engineering education, interdisciplinary, quality, teaching innovation.

I. INTRODUCTION

UALITY concepts coming from the entrepreneurial world


are increasingly incorporated into the university field [1].
In particular in the European Union countries, the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations propose promoting the cooperation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable
criteria and methodologies [2].
The universities have to incorporate the philosophy of
quality in the four fundamental areas of their activities: research, teaching, training of professionals, and management of
their own services [3].
However, the use of the quality concepts in the teacher daily
work is not an easy task. The present paper shows a specific
application in a technological subject.
The authors are lecturers at the Polytechnic School of
Teruel, University of Zaragoza, Spain [4], where they teach
in the second and third year courses of telecommunication
engineering (specializing in electronic systems).
The curriculum of this engineering degree is designed to promote the students ability to detect and analyze technological
problems using decision-making tools and problem-solving
processes [5], [6]. In this way, it can be considered as a matured
engineering curriculum because it includes a nontechnical
component (often called the soft skills) [7].
The present paper demonstrates how the application of a philosophy of quality can help to achieve these goals. Specifically,
the concept of continuous improvement will be applied to the
digital electronics subject. This subject belongs to the second
year in the telecommunication engineering curriculum and includes 40 hours for lectures, 20 for supervised problem-solving,

Manuscript received August 22, 2004; revised April 25, 2007.


The authors are with the Department of Electronic Engineering and Communications, EduQTech, EUPT, University of Zaragoza, 44003 Teruel, Spain
(e-mail: iplaza@unizar.es; ctmedra@unizar.es).
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TE.2007.901981

and 15 for supervised laboratory practices. The present paper


will focus on the laboratory work.
Continuous improvement is not a tool or technique but
rather a way of life (or at least a cultural approach to quality
improvement). A way of reaching continuous improvement
is the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle (also known as the
Shewhart or Demming cycle) that emphasizes the continuing,
never-ending nature of process improvement. The PDCA cycle
both highlights and demonstrates that improvement programs
must start with careful planning, result in effective action, and
move on again to careful planning in a continuous cycle.
The joining of continuous improvement and a technical
matter allows students to approach some tools used in the
industry and management worlds in addition to the intrinsic
technical training.
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. The proposed objectives are specified in Section II. The methodology
is explained in Section III, where the steps to be followed will
be detailed. Then, the tools used by students and teachers are
presented in Section IV. The last two sections are a summary of
the results that were obtained and the main conclusions.
II. OBJECTIVES
From the previous section, a starting hypothesis can be
drawn: the university lecture rooms are the main work places
where the teachers can apply the philosophy of quality in their
daily work. Several specific objectives must be defined to adopt
this idea into a particular case.
The first goal is to provide the students with a work methodology in accordance with the professional world [8]. This
method has to promote the ability to work with others and to
manage any kind of technological problems in a systematic and
rigorous way; that is, an approach to problem solving following
a series of predefined steps as explained in Section III.
Second, this experience should serve as a starting point in a
continuous improvement process in the course [9] from an academic point of view. The students should be engaged as active
learners, playing leading roles in their education [10]. This kind
of feedback mechanism has been previously used for the adaptation of other engineering programs [11].
These two objectives should be taken into account when evaluating the results (Section V). Table I shows the direct stakeholders and the expected benefits.
III. METHODOLOGY
The proposed methodology tries to bring the reality of the
business world to the lecture room by using some tools to make
decisions and by working as a team.

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IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 50, NO. 3, AUGUST 2007

TABLE I
OBJECTIVES: STAKEHOLDERS AND EXPECTED BENEFITS

A. Methods Chronology
1) Explanation to the students: Problem definition and
methodology explanation.
2) Data collection and analysis: Use of the classical tools of
quality and decision-making.
3) Data treatment and teacher summary: Evaluation of students reports.
4) Conclusion and talk to students: Outline of the final
guidelines.
5) Student assessment: Anonymous opinion survey.
As a specific case, the authors decided to apply this approach
to the laboratory classes of a technical course of the curriculum:
Digital Electronics, during two academic years, 20012002
and 20022003. The reason for this choice is simple. In Spain,
quality concepts are explained in the subjects of Management
or Statistics. By means of the integration of quality and electronics students are surprised to understand that real-world
complex situations must be managed in a global way, using a
well-founded work methodology.
Basic concepts are explained in this subject (Boolean logic,
basic gates, and simple designs). It is the base for other more
advanced subjects (Electronic Digital Systems and Microelectronics). Thus, the proposed work methodology is learned from
the first approach to logic systems.
B. In Depth Explanation
1) Explanation to the Students: The methodology was explained to the students in an introductory laboratory session
(one hour). The goal of this phase can be summarized in a single
word: motivation.
As many students as possible should be involved in this experience. Thus, the methodology objectives and the planning
were explained, focusing on the usefulness in their professional
future and on their role to improve the subject. For those purposes, the skills that companies demand and the abilities defined
in the official curriculum were shown (critical thinking, independent learning, collaborative proficiency, analysis, and decision-making). Then, the specific work was proposed as follows.
During the laboratory practices you are going to be workers
in a company specialized in the setup of digital circuits. Your
tasks will be to learn how to assemble the circuits and to collect

Fig. 1. Data collection and analysis phases.

data on the problems you may find or the mistakes you may
make. Once you have collected the data, you will work as an
engineer who must analyze them using the tools provided by the
teachers. You must propose some solutions to avoid or minimize
the mistakes. Finally, you will have to deliver a report to the
company managers (the teachers).
The evaluation of the work was also explained. The set of
all suggested solutions would be the base for the elaboration of
guidelines for next-years students. The conclusions to improve
the course would also be obtained.
2) Data Collection and Analysis of the Results Made by
the Students: About 65 students were involved in the experience during each scholar year (67 in 20012002 and 66 in
20022003) and divided into three groups to share the same
laboratory. Students were free to work alone or in teams of two,
although the last option was recommended. Only seven percent
of the students decided to work alone.
In the Digital Electronics course seven two-hour sessions
were planned to be implemented in the laboratory.
First session: the students learned how to use laboratory
tools (oscilloscope, training board, digital multimeter,
etc.) and the basic logic gates circuits (And, OR, Inverters,
Nand). The students followed an outline provided by the
teachers.
Second to fifth sessions: the students had to design and
set up several logic functions with increasing difficulty
using other integrated circuits (comparators, multiplexers, bcd-to-seven segments decoders, shift registers,
flip-flops, decoders/demultiplexer, counters, precision
timers). During these four sessions the students collected
data, writing down any problem they might have found
and the number of times such problems happened. The
teachers supervised this process and evaluated the students circuits. Then, the students analyzed the data and
recommended some solutions, using the tools advised by
the teachers. This analysis was performed as homework.
Fig. 1 illustrates these processes, showing the tools used.

PLAZA AND MEDRANO: CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT IN ELECTRONIC ENGINEERING EDUCATION

Fig. 2. Ishikawa diagram (I:C:

261

= Integrated circuit).

The top of the figure refers to scholar year 20012002


and the bottom to scholar year 20022003. To clarify the
paper and the flow of ideas, the tools the authors used
will be described in the next section. In the first academic
year the method was applied, the teachers collected all
the data (455 observations divided into 40 kinds of problems) to work with a large group. They also divided
the observations into five blocks, which were distributed
among the students in a random way. During the second
year, the teachers asked the students to analyze the data
in four-person teams to encourage teamwork [12]. The
teams with students repeating the course had an average of
54 observations divided into 20 kinds, while new student
teams had higher numbers, 123 observations and 27 kinds.
After the data analysis, the students gave the teachers a
report in which they presented the data collection, their
analyses, and their conclusions.
Sixth and seventh sessions: the students designed a more
complicated digital project (traffic lights, digital dice, etc.).
The operation was also evaluated by the teachers. Here,
the students can already apply the conclusions they have
obtained to minimize the number of problems.
3) Data Treatment and Teacher Summary: When the reports
were submitted, the teachers marked them between 0 and 1
(10% of the final mark). The teachers evaluated the following
skills: data collection, problem analysis, teamwork, decisionmaking, and both synthesis and writing ability. The mark was
divided into a group evaluation (0.6 points) and an individual
evaluation (0.4 points).
To perform a global analysis, the best reports, above 0.9, were
selected (that means 40% in academic year 20012002 and 62%
in academic year 20022003).
4) Conclusion and Talk to the Students: The teachers made a
set of guidelines with the proposed solutions. This set was stored
in the internal network of the school, available to students and
teachers. These guidelines were given to the following years
students.

Furthermore, the teachers used some of the solutions proposed by the students to start a process of continuous improvement (Section VI).
5) Students Assessment: The process ended with an anonymous opinion survey. In this survey, the students marked several
items and also contributed new ideas and suggestions. Thus, the
teachers were aware of the student evaluation of the method.
IV. TOOLS
To analyze the data (phase 2), some tools were selected
among the classical tools of quality and making decisions,
widely used in the entrepreneurial world.
A. Academic Year 20012002
In the first year of this project, the authors selected an
easy-to-use set of tools so that the students could apply them
without previous experience [13].
Therefore, the cause and effect diagram and the Pareto chart
were chosen among the seven classical Tools of Quality (check
sheet, histogram, Pareto chart, cause and effect diagram, stratification, scatter diagram, and control chart) [14][16].
1) Cause and Effect Diagram (also known as fishbone or
Ishikawa diagram:
Brief Description: This diagram is useful to discover the
true causes of problems. It shows the relation between a
given problem and the causes that produces it [17].
Use: The students used it to divide the problems into families and to understand what the causes were.
Example: Shown in Fig. 2.
2) The Pareto Chart:
Brief Description: A tool to show graphically the factors
influencing a given situation, sorted by order of decreasing
importance. It is used to determine the most important factors. The well-known Pareto principle (or the 8020 rule)
states that 20% of the factors are responsible for 80% of
the effects [18].

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IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 50, NO. 3, AUGUST 2007

TABLE II
CHECK SHEET EXAMPLE

Fig. 3. Pareto chart (I:C:

= Integrated Circuit).

Use: Pareto chart allowed the students to distinguish the


most important causes and to suggest specific solutions.
Pareto chart: Fig. 3 corresponds to Fig. 2.
In this example, two families, Student and Training
board, produced about 80% of the mistakes. Therefore, the
students should give priority to them in their proposed solutions.
B. Academic Year 20022003
New tools were used: check sheet, histogram, brainstorming,
and failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA).
1) Check Sheets:
Brief description: They are forms used to summarize a
count of event occurrences, such as defects, mistakes,
etc. [19].
Use: The students used them to collect data.
Format: The check sheet the authors prepared consisted of
a table in which the kinds of problems the students may
find were divided into the following families:
material;
handling instruments;
mounting the circuit;
time;
other;
unknown.
Each family in turn was divided into classes. For instance, the
family Material had the following fields:
cable;
integrated circuit;
training board;
oscilloscope;
documentation.
Finally, a list of possible problems was included for each type.
For example, the following possibilities were available referring
to an integrated circuit:
circuit does not work;
bent pins;
broken pins;
erased circuit reference;
others.
Fifty-one types of mistakes were listed altogether.
A part of the check sheet is shown in Table II, corresponding
to the previously stated examples. The students had to write
down the number of times they found each type of problem in
the column labeled as Number of events.

2) Histogram:
Brief description: It is a graphic summary of data. It shows
differences in the frequency of events [20].
Use: Some of the teams used it to show graphically the data
collected in the check sheet.
3) The Failure Mode and Effects Analysis:
Brief description: It helps identify and counter weak points
in the early conception phase of products and processes.
It is an easy and powerful proactive engineering quality
method [21].
Use: The students used FMEA to detect the most important
problems for which they should propose solutions.
Format: The format was focused on the following
fields [22]:
failure mode;
effect;
occurrence (O);
current controls;
severity (S);
causes;
detection (D);
risk priority number (RPN) is a mathematical product
(OxSxD); this number is used to place priority on items
that require additional quality.
The causes that obtained the highest RPN should be prioritized by the students.
4) Brainstorming:
Brief description: It is a technique used in groups and characterized by its dynamics and participation. Brainstorming
helps teams generate as many ideas as possible in a short
period of time [23].
Use: It was used to identify weak points (FMEA itself) and
to give solutions (student report).
V. RESULTS
The results obtained during the academic year 20012002
have already been described in [13].
After applying the method for two years, the authors conducted a global analysis of the results to allow for evaluation
of the process method. Two aspects will now be analyzed corresponding to the two proposed objectives: methodology and
evaluation, and the continuous improvement process.
A. Methodology and Evaluation
The results of the analysis of these two years presented an
important common point. Before the data analysis, students
thought that the mistakes were in the devices and instruments.
After the data analysis, they realized that most of the mistakes

PLAZA AND MEDRANO: CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT IN ELECTRONIC ENGINEERING EDUCATION

263

B. Continuous Improvement Process

Fig. 4. Error classification.

Fig. 5. Evaluation of the educational method.

were a result of human errors (see error classification in Fig. 4)


and then proposed reasonable solutions focusing on the relevant
factors. Therefore, a change has been noted in their way of
thinking and in their way of facing problems.
Several teams proposed solutions that could be applied to
their own work (57% in 20012002). They believed their solutions allowed them to improve their laboratory work style (77%
in 20022003). During the second year, the students repeating
the course made fewer mistakes than the others, as was noted in
the methodology section. Moreover, the percentage of students
who successfully implemented the electronic design (last two
practical sessions) increased from 21% (20012002) to 35%.
Some teams looked for information about other quality tools.
This fact suggests that they were motivated by the topic.
The student assessment of the application of decision-making
and quality tools was good (Fig. 5). More specifically, they
indicated its usefulness and its application in the industrial
world considering the most demanded skills that the teachers
presented in the introduction to the work. They considered it as
a method of preparing themselves for their future professional
tasks.
The students found the difficulty level of the proposed
methodology suitable with respect to the reward they could
get.
Furthermore, the authors point out that this methodology establishes a link between two very different knowledge fields:
electronics and management. This relation is very interesting
since it provides the students with a global view of the research
and problems they may find. This interdisciplinary approach is
closer to the real world problems they will face in their professional life.

The improvements can be divided into three groups: documentation and materials, student participation, and teacher
work. They were analyzed separately.
1) Documentation and Materials:
The first year (20012002), the students discovered several errors in the documentation provided by the teachers
(Fig. 4). The suggestions for improvement gave rise to the
following actions:
a check sheet was made for the next academic year
(20022003); it was designed to facilitate the data collection and to train the students in the use of this tool
widely used in industry; the check sheet can be further
improved every year;
teachers summarized the solutions proposed by the students about human mistakes; in this way, new students
(20022003) could learn from the errors made by students of the previous years;
guidelines for the laboratory sessions were rewritten in
a clear and didactic way; teachers added more graphical
explanations and schemas.
As a result, the field documentation is not present in
the error classification during the academic year 20022003
(Fig. 4).
For the material needed in the laboratory, two actions are
pointed out:
a laboratory form was created where all students or
teachers can write the problems that they find in materials; every week, the technician revises these sheets
and repairs the instruments;
in the following scholar years the technician and
the teachers have designed a new board with several
devices, such as light-emitting diodes, proto-board,
switches, etc., specifically made for training in digital
electronics; these new materials will substitute for the
device that generated the highest percentage of material
problems.
2) Student Participation:
After this experience, the students started to get more involved in the courses, even in theoretical lectures. For instance, the number of student suggestions increased.
The students asked to work in the laboratory outside the
usual timetable to prepare the last two laboratory sessionslearning to be more independent.
Most students (90% in academic year 20012002 and 94%
in academic year 20022003) agreed to give the proposed
solutions to next years new students who could participate
in a process of continuous improvement. The rest considered that the new students should face the same problems.
In addition, the evaluation of this experience had a positive influence on the whole course (laboratories, problemsolving, and theoretical lectures). This conclusion is verified by the annual teacher control survey performed by the
University of Zaragoza shown in Fig. 6.
3) Teacher Work:
The teachers took several business courses. They maintained a continuous relation with several industrial firms to
close the gap between the industrial environment and the

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IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 50, NO. 3, AUGUST 2007

Fig. 7. Level of achievement from 1997 to 2004. Dark bars refer to the level of
achievement when using standard evaluation.
Fig. 6. Valuation of the students satisfaction: From 1 (very bad) to 5 (very
good). (a) Didactical resource usage, course preparation, clarity and order, efficiency for teaching concepts, enjoyment. (b) Promotion of studentteacher dialog, teacher activity to increase student motivation, and teacher availability.
(c) Global valuation.

university. In this way, this experience has encouraged continuous training. The authors believe that this training has
been a valuable activity for acquiring knowledge in their
future projects.
The application of the philosophy of quality in the digital
electronics laboratory classes has allowed the teachers
to find several mistakes and to improve the educational
method they used (new laboratory guidelines, changes
in some of the explanations, adoption of new student
suggestions).
Finally, the experience has been the starting point of a new
field of activities among the authors, which focuses on the
application of the quality concept in daily work. In this
field, some of the following examples can be listed:
the design of a management quality system for research,
development, and innovation activities;
a Ph.D. that looks for the application of quality
in PC-based programmable logic controllers using
real-time operating systems;
a postgraduate course entitled Quality and Security in
Information Technologies has been developed.
VI. FURTHER RESULTS
The results that were obtained during two academic years encouraged the teachers to apply the method. This section complements the previous research and takes a broader and more
official view.
Two indicators have been chosen in the school to evaluate the
educational activity.

before and after the application of the proposed methodology.


From this figure, the conclusion is that the application of the
quality philosophy has led to an improvement in student satisfaction, the only relevant factor that has changed during this
period.
B. Level of Achievement
Level of achievement is defined as the ratio of the number of
credits that the students have passed to the number of credits in
which the students have registered. The optimal result would be
one.
The level of achievement is presented in Fig. 7. The educational results have also improved, even considering only the
number of students that passed a standard evaluation, without
taking into account the specific mark of the proposed laboratory
work.
VII. CONSOLIDATION OF THE PROCESS
To consolidate the continuous improvement process, the authors propose to follow the continuous improvement spiral
(also known as the Sheward cycle or PDCA cycle). This
model consists of a logical sequence of four repetitive steps for
continuous improvement: P (Plan), D (Do), C (Check), and A
(Action) [24].
In this project, the global phases should be applied as follows.
P: At the beginning of the iterative process, the project is
planned and explained to the students (Section III).
D: Students develop the laboratory practices following the
proposed methodology (Section III).
C: Teachers perform a global analysis of the results with
the goal of reaching conclusions (Section V).
A: Conclusions are applied in order to improve the course
(see Section VI).

A. Teacher Control Survey


Every year the students evaluate the courses. Several aspects
directly concern the teachers activity: didactical resource
usage, course preparation, clarity and order, efficiency for
teaching concepts, enjoyment, promotion of student-teacher
dialogue, teacher activity to increase student motivation, and
teacher availability. These aspects were marked from 1 (very
bad) to 5 (very good). The average measures the student
satisfaction.
Fig. 6 shows the student survey results that have been obtained during the last six years in order to compare the results

VIII. CONCLUSION AND FUTURE WORK


The use of the philosophy of quality in the Digital Electronics
laboratory project has proved to be a powerful tool that allows
the students to work with a methodology more closely related
to the entrepreneurial world. As a consequence, student participation and satisfaction has increased.
Furthermore, the experience has helped the authors to improve the teacher educational method by increasing the quality
of the laboratory class.
In addition, new activities are being planned.

PLAZA AND MEDRANO: CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT IN ELECTRONIC ENGINEERING EDUCATION

To have lecturers in later courses who evaluate the evolution of the students who were trained using the proposed
methodology.
To consider professionals or potential employers as stakeholders, involving them in this experience to compare students trained using the proposed approach with students
trained using the standard approach.
To apply the proposed methodology to other subjects.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT
The authors would like to thank the Instituto de Ciencias de
la Educacin (ICE), Teruel, Spain, for its recent designation as
members of an Educational Innovative Group at the University
of Zaragoza, Teruel, Spain, and the anonymous reviewers for
their helpful comments and suggestions.
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Inmaculada Plaza (M02SM06) received the M.S. degree in physics, the Advanced Studies Diploma (DEA) in design and manufacture engineering, and
the Ph.D. degree in electronic engineering from the University of Zaragoza,
Zaragoza, Spain.
She is currently a Lecturer in the Electronics Department at the Polytechnic
University School of Teruel, University of Zaragoza. Other employment has
included work in solid state physics and nuclear physics. She has also been
a Consultant and Leader in a security firm. Her research interests include
quality in education and technologies for disabled and elderly people. Along
with Dr. Francisco Arcega, she is the Coordinator of the EduQTech (EducationQualityTechnology) group.
Dr. Plaza is a Member of the IEEE Education Society and the AEC (Spanish
Association for Quality).

Carlos T. Medrano received the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from
the University of Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain, in 1994 and 1997, respectively.
He also received the Ph.D. degree in physics from Joseph Fourier University,
Grenoble, France.
His dissertation was developed at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), Grenoble, France. He is a Lecturer in the Electronics Department at the Polytechnic University School of Teruel, Spain, where he has been
employed since 1998. He has taught general physics, digital electronics, digital
design, microelectronics, programmable logic, hardware description languages,
CAD tools for PCB design, and electronic circuit simulation. His research includes computer vision and quality in education.