New Course Inspires a Professor and His Students

When the students in Assistant Professor Andreas Beling’s Solid State Devices class asked him to create a new course that would allow them to use the theoretical knowledge they had gained in the course in a more practical way, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

Now that the students have completed a semester’s worth of lab-based work, however, he’s a firm believer in the value of experiential education experiences for undergraduate students.

The new course in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Optoelectronic Device Fabrication and Management, was entirely lab-based. The class worked in the UVA Microfabrication Laboratories, known as the “clean room,” with assistance from the laboratories’ director Arthur Lichtenberger.

“Many upper-level undergraduate classes are still lecture-based,” Beling said. “In the Solid State Devices class, the students learn a lot of theory, and do a lot of problems on the board. In this class, they actually create things.”

For the third- and fourth-year students who took the class, the experience was a valuable addition to the theoretical knowledge base they have developed during their time at UVA Engineering.

“We read about it and played with the math of the physics in the theoretical class, Solid State Devices,” said fourth-year electrical engineering major Dustin Widmann. “And we made it, tested it, and quantified it in this course, learning how the theory is actually useful in practice and where that theory falls short. We’ve also picked up some lab experience and intuition along the way.”

Beling’s students spent the semester training on different microfabrication tools, including an electron beam evaporator, a profilometer and inductively coupled plasma etching and plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition.

The students completed tasks that required them to use micron-scale photolithography, dry and wet chemical etching, metal etching, metal depositions and metal lift-off.

As the semester progressed, the students used the microfabrication methods they had learned to build their own photodiodes. “The excitement was huge when they did measurements and found that the devices they fabricated actually worked,” Beling said.

Photodiodes convert light energy into electronic signals. Beling’s research focuses on the development of high-power, ultrafast photodiodes that will be compatible with future communications systems. The students in his class built photodiodes of the same caliber that he creates in his research.

The undergraduate students’ success at building state-of-the-art photodiodes, work normally done by Ph.D. students, can be attributed not only to the students’ motivation, but also to the hands-on environment, Beling said.

“The learning effect is larger in the lab,” he said. “It’s a great learning environment, and there’s great teamwork – if the students don’t write down their notes, others can’t follow what they’ve done.”

Fourth-year electrical engineering major Timothy Tobias, one of the students in the course, agreed.

“Many of us had scheduling conflicts and needed to coordinate our notes and efforts as a team much more than any other course I have taken at UVA,” Tobias said. “It was incredibly useful in teaching us not only lab work but how to work together as well.”

“Clean-room work is such a valuable additive to an engineer’s education because it is unique relative to any other lab experience; it requires an incredible amount of patience and attention to detail,” said third-year electrical engineering major Taylor Posavitz.  

“Since all of the work is done on the scale of nanometers, it takes weeks — potentially months — of labor to process one piece of silicon into a set of devices,” Posavitz said. “One simple mistake in the chain can completely destroy all of the work up to that point. Producing a working chip is extremely rewarding.”

Beling believes that the methods the students learned in the class will be immediately useful in their careers. “These are skills that are useful now,” he said.