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Engineering Students in Brazil Learn with Hands-on Projects

How does Brazil’s INATEL (Instituto Nacional de Telecomunicações) inspire and challenge their electrical engineering (EE) students? By giving them a real-world design challenge - along with some friendly competition with their fellow classmates.

“Each year INATEL holds an antenna design event for its EE students,” states Professor Carlos Nazareth, professor at INATEL since 1994. “While there is some competition between students, the emphasis is on fun,” notes Dr. Nazareth who teaches undergraduate and post-graduate courses in the areas of TV, RF and Microwave and Satellite Communications.

For the design event, telecommunications engineering students at this university in southeast Brazil form groups of 3-4 individuals. Each group will choose from a predefined set of 26 design specs, each representing real world antenna types from relevant industries such as mobile communications, Wi-Fi, and UHF television applications (Groups with the better grades get first choice!). Project teams do simulations of their designs, build their prototypes, and, finally, test their design with an RF analyzer to prove that their antenna works to the specifications.

The program has been a success, with about 170 engineering students participating each year. It provides EE students with practical hands-on experience in parallel with their theoretical studies. Each project is evaluated by the engineering staff and the resulting score factors into the students’ grades for the semester.

Local Industry also plays a role

INATEL has formed important partnerships with the local high tech industry. There are 150 companies in the vicinity of the university. Many are smaller startups, often formed from work that originated at INATEL. The INATEL campus is near other sizable Brazilian cities that have large companies. These firms have taken note of the good work being done at INATEL and look to the school for qualified students to do internships and take full time positions. Local engineering companies also take notice of the winners of the antenna design competition to work with them.

Modern lab equipment key to attracting new students

Professor Antonio Alves, a coordinator of the Telecommunications Engineering course at INATEL, has a goal of boosting enrollment from 1900 to 2400 students, saying, “By investing in new equipment in our labs and keeping the instruments up to date, the university is able to attract more students into the program.”

In addition, current and former students speak highly of the INATEL telecommunications curriculum. This has been valuable for getting the word out to potential students about the quality of the INATEL program and its laboratories.

RF analyzers from Keysight Technologies

In support of their antenna propagation ‘fun fair’ competition, INATEL makes use of nine Keysight FieldFox RF analyzers in their EE labs (Agilent’s Electronic Measurement Group is now Keysight Technologies). These handheld units replaced a previous generation of bench network analyzers. With models that operate at up to 4 and 6 GHz, these versatile instruments provide students with precise antenna measurements and a host of additional capabilities, all in a compact instrument that is easy for students to learn and use.

INATEL technical tradeshow initiative

INATEL also sponsors a technical tradeshow initiative which is open to a broader set of students. This innovative program, which goes beyond just telecommunications, encourages students to define and create their own projects in a broad set of subject areas including, but not limited to, computing, networking and automation.

This initiative is open to first-year through final-year students. Teams are formed and each makes a project proposal to university professors, usually in the March/April time-frame. Once the teams get the go-ahead, they are required to follow certain project planning steps until they reach the final qualification phase in September.

To facilitate the students’ projects, the university makes their test equipment available for the groups to use in their free time. This provides them the tools they need to prove their concepts and test prototypes.

Finalists are identified and make presentations to a panel of judges who ultimately select a winner. The projects developed by the INATEL students are both creative and diverse. Past winners used RFID technology to create bracelets that track newborn infants throughout the hospital where they are born. Another winning team created a device intended to change the behavior of canine pets. Their invention fits on a dog collar and emits a high frequency whenever the animal barks, with the goal to eliminate annoying noise. A practical solution indeed!

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