by Barbara Black
Build your own computer that was the assignment for 120 students
in the computer engineering course COEN 417, and it opened their eyes
to how this magic machine works, and what can prevent it from working.
Their professor, Dr. Mohamed Nekili, said, The students were just
amazed. The project consumed them totally.
Four employees spent six months building a prototype of the computer,
called TalKit, and writing a manual. The students had to take it from
there, using the fundamentals they had studied in class. They did their
work in a lab equipped with four Tektronix logic analyzers, four channel
scopes, 80 printed circuit boards and nearly $10,000 in components. At
the heart of TalKit lies a Motorola MC68000 microprocessor, driving ROMs,
static and dynamic memories and some peripheral ports.
Professor Nekili said that not only did the project give the students
a deeper understanding of the theory they learned in their courses, but
they had to pass a definitive test: whether they could record their voice
and play it back on the computer.
When the students work was successful, Nekili said, the sound
was properly sampled, properly routed through the data bus, properly stored
in memory, the different chips properly addressed and selected, and finally
the instructions were properly executed by the microprocessor.
Just imagine the students impression upon smooth playback
by the machine!
If they didnt get a successful playback, however, they had to go
back to their model, take it apart and see where they went wrong
a genuine learning experience.
Nekili is planning the second version of this project for the fall term.
He said it will involve less wiring and more thinking
a response to the students who became so obsessed by building their computer
that they spent an inordinate amount of time on the mechanics.
However, the idea of the course won rave reviews from many of the students
who participated. One student remarked afterwards, I did find the
labs to be extremely useful in understanding the workings of a microprocessor
system. And it was actually enjoyable when our results turned out as expected.
Another said, I think that this lab was incredibly interesting because
it actually put all of the theory learned in class into practice ... It
was a great experience.
Professor Nekili added, Special thanks go to [part-time instructor]
Chris Taillefer for the excellent laboratory manual which was able to
catch step-by-step the amazing experience of building ones first
computer and his close supervision of students, to [technician] Guy Gosselin
for the professional experience that allowed the designer team not only
to anticipate many of the obstacles to come but also to suggest elegant
ways of overcoming them, and to [Director of Academic Facilities] Henry
Kovalcik for making sure the team remained on the right track and the
A version of this article by Sophy Khwaja appeared in the Engineering
and Computer Science magazine.