Students taking the computer science stream of the DESN2000 course at UNSW will now have access to a new and improved hardware platform, custom-built by Dr Hasindu Gamaarachchi and Dr Hammond Pearce from UNSW Computer Science and Engineering.

The computer science stream of the DESN2000 focuses on embedded systems. Embedded systems are the computer systems that run infrastructures like microwaves, traffic lights, elevators, and power grids.

“Our goal in DESN2000 is to equip students with the skills to conceptualise, design and construct embedded systems,” said Dr Gamaarachchi.

“When we took over the course, we found that the platform used – which was based on something called AVR - was over 20 years old, and no longer met industry requirements. It was too underpowered for many embedded systems tasks nowadays, and both stakeholders and students were wondering why we were still teaching it,” said Dr Pearce.

The new system is built around a modern STM32 computer chip, which is 100 times more powerful than the original chip and widely used in modern embedded systems.

With a set of peripherals built around the core platform, including a screen, a motor, a keypad, flash memory, light sensors and an infrared receiver, the new educational platform is useful in a wide variety of applications.

“It contains all the necessary components to replicate real-world embedded systems, so students can use it to experiment and build a prototype,” said Dr Gamaarachchi.

“None of the available systems had the list of features we wanted, which is why we developed the platform ourselves. We have been able to do so in very cost-effective way, and we’re extremely pleased with the result,” said Dr Pearce.

“Students will be learning hands-on, on a much more powerful platform that is much more applicable to what they will be doing in industry,” he said.

The board will be used by about 60 students per term, starting in T2 this year.

“It has been tested by tutors of the course, who have worked with the previous board as well. They appreciated the new technology as it represents the current industry demands,” said Dr Gamaarachchi.

The platform includes an expansion port that allows easy connection of additional peripherals, which makes it future-proof and adaptable to each year’s curriculum.

“The expansion port also offers eager students the freedom to develop their own extensions. They can put a unique flair on their project, customising and improving it beyond our suggestions, depending on their preferences and creativity,” said Dr Pearce.

“Computer Science is a rapidly evolving field, so students should learn how to continue to innovate. I always encourage my students to create, and by building a custom platform we are setting a leading example,” he said.

“We’re also hoping to spark students’ interest in hardware. Australia has a big culture of software engineering, but at the end of the day, software needs to run on something. We hope to inspire more students to take up hardware engineering, and having more modern technology certainly helps. No one likes to learn using ancient technology.”