Wireless course a hit with students and NSF

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- As an engineer of wireless communications, Vince Poor knows he is at the front lines of a revolution. What he didn't know was how many others want to be there too.

Vince Poor


His course, "The Wireless Revolution: Telecommunications for the 21st Century," pulled in 247 students this spring, making it the largest of any class this semester.

It also attracted interest from the National Science Foundation. Poor recently won the Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, which provides $300,000 toward further development of the course with the hope that it will serve as a model for similar classes at other schools. Poor was one of six researchers to receive the award, which is the foundation's highest honor for "excellence in both teaching and research."

"I thought maybe I'd have 25 to 40 students," said Poor, a professor of electrical engineering who created the class in 2000. Instead, the course enrolled 125 students the first year and 180 the next before jumping to 247.

"It's a lot of fun," said Poor. "There is technical subject matter, but it's at a level that is accessible to just about any student." This semester, 60 percent of the students were non-engineering students, many with concentrations in the Woodrow Wilson School, economics, politics, history and English.

The subject pulls in a broad mix of students because it has great financial, economic and sociological implications in addition to its technological aspects, said Poor. In the same way that wireless technology dramatically altered society with the advent of radio and television, the current advances are bringing new changes as people communicate and access the Internet everywhere, he said.

The class even touches on issues of international economics because the arrival of inexpensive cell phones is allowing developing nations to build their own telecommunications networks without having to install miles of expensive cable, he said.

"Besides that, it's interesting for students," said Poor, who earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1977. "They all have cell phones. To a large extent, the wireless revolution is being driven by young people."

Poor divides the semester into two parts, giving lectures in the first half and inviting guests from industry, government and academics for the second. He starts by discussing the history of wireless communications from the first transmissions of Morse code in the 19th century to the present day. He talks about the technical aspects of radio communication-- how sound or other information is converted into radio waves and then translated back again. He then discusses the radio spectrum and how government regulators organize and allocate it. Lastly, he looks ahead to the coming years and gives students a sense of what technology is likely to emerge.

The guest lecturers from this semester included Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, a Wall Street analyst, a national security expert, an attorney with expertise in telecommunications deregulation, a vice president at Nokia, the chief of wireless regulation at the Federal Communications Commission and a Princeton engineer who is developing wireless devices to help biologists track animals in the field.

The combination added up to a very engaging class, said Jennifer Ralph, who graduated in 2001 as a Woodrow Wilson School major. "What made it most interesting for me was the immediacy," said Ralph, noting that Poor regularly distributed packages of current news clippings that touched on issues from the class. "We'd discuss something in class, and then you'd hear someone speaking about it on the news the next day."

Now a consultant at McKinsey and Co., Ralph has found her knowledge useful on several occasions. "There are not a lot of people who know much about wireless," she said. "Just having a basic idea of it makes such a difference."

Hallie Welch, who took the 300-level class as a junior in 2000, said the class made her think twice about her decision to concentrate in political economy. "I wish I had taken it freshman or sophomore year. I definitely would have considered switching majors," she said.

The thought of taking an engineering course had intimidated Welch, but Poor erased her concern. "He was probably the most approachable teacher I had at Princeton. He wanted us to know it and didn't care what it took," she said. "I absolutely loved the class."

Pulling in students like Ralph and Welch is a high priority for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said Peter Ramadge, chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering. "Clearly, learning technology is critical for students these days, for their own understanding and for their careers," he said. "I regard it as part of our mission to bring an understanding of technology to all students at Princeton."

"One of the reasons Vince's course is so successful is that it is so well taught," continued Ramadge. "He's very clear on what he wants to get across. He teaches technology, but he also gives students a chance to bring their own interests and strengths to the table."

With the help of his National Science Foundation grant, Poor hopes to make the same opportunity available to students beyond Princeton. Although the course depends a lot on his own knowledge of and circle of contacts in the field, Poor said he plans to develop both text- and Web-based materials that give other professors a jumpstart in assembling a course.

One challenge is keeping the materials up to date, he said. "If I look at what I taught the first year, it really is quite different from what I'm teaching right now." The rapidly changing nature of the subject also makes it interesting. When he first taught the class in 2000, analysts predicted that the volume of wireless telecommunications would surpass that of conventional wireline telecommunications in 2005. Last year, the prediction advanced to 2004. "And this time, while I was teaching the course, The Economist reported that it had already happened," he said.

The next phase will be a wireless Internet in which people use their portable devices for exchanging information as much as they do for talking. "These students are going to be the ones to do it," he said. "They are going to be the ones working in the telecommunications industry, in banking and in venture capital, making it all happen."

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