University of Bristol

University of Bristol Professor Builds Electronic Design Teaching Method and Videos Around NI AWR Software


Company Profile

University of Bristol is one of the most popular and successful universities in the UK and was ranked within the top 40 universities in the world in the QS World University rankings 2015. The Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering is an active and successful center of excellence in teaching and research, with in-depth specialization in advanced communications technologies (power and spectrum efficient wireless access, image and video signal processing, photonics and quantum information) and electrical energy management. Much of the Department’s research is interdisciplinary, working with colleagues in Engineering Faculty and Applied Sciences.

The Design Challenge

Prof. Fornetti joined the University of Bristol as part of a commitment by the university to modernizing and enhancing the content and delivery of its electronic engineering courses and to introducing innovative and creative approaches to teaching and learning. Prof. Fornetti’s vision of academic teaching is that it should not be seen as a simple transfer of knowledge and notions between the instructor and the student. He sees it instead as the process of stimulating curiosity and creating enthusiasm about a subject in a way that encourages, inspires and enables students to explore the subject beyond the physical classroom. He also believes that the wide availability of powerful simulation tools, new technology, and broadband internet access enables academic teaching to be set free from the static setting of a classroom and the static pages of a textbook.

The Solution

NI AWR Design Environment software, specifically Microwave Office circuit simulation, was developed for high-frequency circuit design, but Prof. Fornetti believed that it could also be suitable and very useful for straightforward analog circuits that are taught in first year coursework, which mainly focuses on operational amplifiers (op-amps), diodes, and their applications. 

It’s all well and good to tell students that they can get a license for a very powerful and useful simulation tool, says Prof. Fornetti, but how does a teacher really get them to engage with it? He leads by example and uses NI AWR simulation software in his lectures to show in a conceptual and dynamic fashion how varying the values of circuit elements, as well as adding or removing elements, affects the operation of various circuits. To this end, he says, the tune tool is particularly effective and so are annotations for DC values of voltage and current. The students have grasped how easy and powerful the software is and they have become very interested. In fact, some students have realized how useful it would have been in subjects from the previous semester, such as linear circuits, and were almost resentful that they had only been shown this tool in the second term, when Prof. Fornetti began teaching.

The other crucial element in getting first year students to use a simulation tool, says Prof. Fornetti, is to make it very easy to get started by providing relevant and “easy-to-digest” training material and support. As a result, he has produced seven video tutorials (available through NI AWR Professors in Partnership Program at that illustrate how to use NI AWR Design Environment for basic DC and AC circuits, as well as op-amp and diode circuits. He also regularly supplies simulation files to go with the lectures and points out in the notes where else to experiment/explore. Lastly, he holds weekly drop-in sessions when students can come and get help with their simulation endeavours. 

In previous years, students were required to carry out a lab experiment, worth 20 percent of the unit, which entailed the design and characterization of a tuneable active filter for audio applications (Baxandall circuit). As a first step, they had to calculate values for resistors and capacitors that would allow them to achieve a specific frequency response. They used to spend time doing this during the lab session. Sometimes they got their values wrong and only realized it after they had carried out the circuit characterization. This meant that they ended up having to repeat the whole experiment. But this time, the students were given the lab script before the lab experiment took place and were encouraged to carry out the calculations beforehand and verify the response of the resulting circuit with the simulator. They were also encouraged to play around with the circuit and gain a better understanding of how the circuit actually operated and achieved its filtering action. The average mark for the coursework was considerably higher than the previous year and their technical notes clearly demonstrated a better conceptual understanding of how the circuit operated. 

In addition to introducing Microwave Office software and related training videos into the course, Prof. Fornetti also introduced compact lab kits that students could borrow to try out lab experiments at home before the actual lab (or to replay/repeat them afterwards). The students were given access to a components cabinet that allowed them to experiment with any circuits that they liked. The home lab kits were put together in such a way as to enable students to do essentially everything that they could do in the lab but now at home. They were given two 9-V batteries as power supplies, a breadboard, a multimeter, a USB oscilloscope, and signal generator (Picoscope 2204), and access to components (passives, op-amps, diodes, transistors). The fact that they could simulate the circuits using NI AWR software before implementing them on a breadboard gave them much greater confidence about their home experiments, which is very important because without some degree of confidence that their circuit is going to work, they can be very tentative to implement it when there is no academic around to ask. The home lab kits were just a trial this year but since they were so popular, they will be offered in the future as well.

Why NI AWR Design Environment

Thanks to NI AWR software experts for automating a self-service licensing model that enables students to immediately obtain licenses that can be used on their own personal computers. This, coupled with Prof. Fornetti’s videos, immediately gets students up and running anywhere, anytime, and at their own pace. Even though the use of simulation software was optional for the unit, many students used the software extensively and have become regular users--largely because they realize how much it can help them with their studies and probably with their future career.

The overwhelming popularity of NI AWR Design Environment combined with the videos for the Electronics class for first-year students has inspired Dr. Fornetti to continue the support into the second year Electronics 2 unit. To this end, he made two video tutorials that describe in detail how to implement Class A and Class B bipolar junction transistor (BJT) amplifiers, which the students would be designing and charactering in the Electronics 2 labs. These tutorials have received many views (almost 300 combined) and their importance to the students is highlighted in the positive feedback they provided on their experiences. This feedback shows that the videos not only provided appropriate guidance and support to students who already use NI AWR software, but also convinced those who were unsure about using the software by demonstrating just how useful and insightful the use of a powerful simulator could be. It also shows that the video tutorials:

  • Helped students achieve a better understanding of the principles of operation of amplifier circuits
  • Saved them time in the lab by allowing them to prepare beforehand by simulating the circuits. (They were also able to check their experimental results against their simulations during the labs thus identifying possible discrepancies and measurement errors)
  • Made their lab work easier, more enjoyable, and less stressful

Most importantly, students saw the benefits beyond the lab exercise and confirmed that the video tutorials and the simulator were also very useful for gaining a better understanding of the material taught in the lectures. One of the students said, “The video tutorials were great as they allowed us to get to grips with the lab beforehand, which made it less frantic and stressful in the labs themselves. They did not give us the answers, but gave us an idea of what the lab was about and what to expect, concurrent with the theory we are learning. The fact we had an idea of the lab before we went in also took pressure off the demonstrators, and allowed their time to be spent better on helping people understand theory rather than simply trying to get circuits to work. I would like these online videos to be available for every lab we have.”

Useful links

Links to Prof. Fornetti’s ebook and videos can be found at