News & Events

Electronic Play-Doh


Reprint from
By Paul Gattis - Huntsville Times
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HUNTSVILLE, AL -- Two years ago, Karl Henry attended a technical conference in Albuquerque, N.M., and saw the future.

It's not that Field Programmable Gate Array software was brand new. It's that he envisioned a fast-track for success for his students at Drake State Technical College.

"I said, 'Wow, this is happening,' " said Henry, chair of the engineering technology program at Drake. "I need to be doing this."

Presenting at the conference was Craig Kief, a professor at the University of New Mexico. Afterward, an impressed Henry approached Kief and a relationship began that has led to two National Science Foundation grants.

Now Drake is the only two-year school in the East, Henry said, giving students a hands-on education on the FPGAs. It's part of a grant sought by the University of New Mexico that partners with Drake and four community colleges in Arizona.

"We're beyond that cutting edge, that's for sure," Kief said. "We are riding that razor blade of the cutting edge."

So what's the big deal about FPGAs? In the most basic perspective, it's a software configurable digital interface device that is used in everyday products - cell phones, flat-screen TVs, automobiles.

Henry described it as "electronic Play-Doh" because students can do as much with an FPGA as their imagination allows.

"Anybody can wind up being tomorrow's Einstein with this stuff," Henry said.

Simple programs with the FPGA, such as those in cell phones, are simple. But they get complicated, too. Kief said FPGAs are used in the Mars rover and that, obviously, is complicated.

To get involved with FPGAs seemed a no-brainer to Henry.

"I got interested in it because technicians need to be able to repair equipment that has this stuff in it," Henry said. "It's a travesty if I don't teach my students about this and give them some experience with it."

Henry said several students trained to work with FPGAs have already landed jobs in Huntsville. And putting FPGA experience on a resumé will make it stand out.

But the FPGA education goes beyond repair jobs. A group of Drake students and faculty presented an "intelligent walking cane" for the visually-impaired at a national competition for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The project essentially programmed the walking cane with an FPGA device to give it such perks as range sensing to objects, audible alarms, time and temperature information and emergency communication.

Competing against four-year universities that teamed with other universities, Drake finished third - and Henry beamed as he said all of the work took place in a small lab on the Drake campus.

For anyone interested in learning more about FPGAs, Henry wants to teach you. Drake is planning to hold professional development courses in accordance with the mandate of the NSF grants.

In fact, Henry said he learns more about FPGAs from his students all the time.

"That's what's so great about it," Henry said. "There is more than one way to do this. There is more than one way to write the same code and it all works."


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