Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      April 1999 Volume XXII Number 1

Microwave Technology
and Distance Education,
by Bill Rozycki

In Studio B35 on the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne campus, Thomas Laverghetta instructs half a dozen students on their upcoming laboratory experiment in analog communications. The class serves both the students sitting in the studio and two sections of students who study through distance education. This is the 693rd televised lecture for Laverghetta, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering technology whose research specialty is, appropriately, microwave communications.

Thomas Laverghetta, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering technology, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, discusses how to test the characteristics of a new reinforced polyolefin microwave material, which he holds in his hand. This material is used in a variety of wireless applications, such as cellular telephones and pagers. --credit

From a podium at the front of the room, Laverghetta combines an easygoing delivery with clear, simple explanations. A student in the class calls out a question to which Laverghetta responds, sketching a diagram of an antenna display on an electronic projector. The sketch appears simultaneously on mounted television screens. Curiously, Laverghetta's eye contact is not solely with the student who asked the question. He directs his explanation equally to the main camera mounted in the back of the studio. "I make a point of looking at the camera during lectures," Laverghetta later explains. "That way, students in the other sections feel included." His other students, living all over the state, watch on cable television or receive videotapes by mail. Most hope to complete a four-course certification program, developed by Laverghetta, that will enhance their skills and boost their earnings as microwave technicians.

After his lecture, Laverghetta reflects on his teaching. "I very consciously study and critique my teaching approach, but it is not abstract theory that guides me. Instead, I draw from my own work experience." Laverghetta was an electronics technician for the first ten years of his career, and though he went on to earn both bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering, he remains focused on the learning needs of technicians and would-be technicians, as well as engineers.

His attention to the camera and his words of encouragement to those students he can reach only by television are also grounded in his own experience. Laverghetta earned his master's degree through distance education, studying videotaped lectures mailed to him weekly. "Never did an instructor look at the camera. It was as if I didn't exist," he ruefully recalls. After he started teaching at IPFW, Laverghetta pioneered televised courses, making sure that distance students were not ignored. As other instructors have begun televised teaching in the ensuing years, Laverghetta has mentored them through their learning process. "I find ways to keep my distance students involved," he explains, "things like looking into the camera, mentioning the special problems one might encounter at home. I try to give special assistance to those doing the laboratory work alone and isolated."

As difficult as it might seem, Laverghetta has designed his courses so that all students, even those far away, do the laboratory experiments, which include setting up test antennas and measuring emissions and frequencies. The hands-on training brings theory and practice together while enhancing involvement in learning. He helps students solve the problems of conducting laboratory learning from a distance. "If they don't have the parts available where they work, we send them out to the students," Laverghetta explains.

As for teaching technique, Laverghetta tries to be his own hardest critic. "I watch every lecture I give. When you're on television, you are really exposed to scrutiny. Goof up there, and everyone knows it." With the constant feedback of his own tapes, Laverghetta has perfected a pleasant, efficient delivery and a demeanor that welcomes exchange of ideas. His approach connects with students, as anonymous end-of-course surveys show. "He makes the information so understandable," one former student wrote.Asked whether his research and teaching intersect, Laverghetta reacts with puzzlement. "They are so closely bound together," he answers after a pause, "that I think it's harder to state how they exist separately." Laverghetta's field focuses on a technology that is rapidly changing our lives as ever more information surges through satellite relays and microwave towers to televisions, pagers, computer modems, and cellular phones. In this field, technical innovation often makes last year's technology next year's history.

Laverghetta's distance education class on electronic communications is broadcast to remote locations over the local cable system and is taped for other off-campus students to view. --credit

Laverghetta maintains a close relationship with many companies in the microwave field, and he believes these ties help his teaching. "My research and consulting for industry," Laverghetta explains, "allows me to keep in the forefront of new developments. What I learn there, I bring back to the classroom and teach my students. That way, when students leave here and land a job in industry, they're current."

The other side of the equation is the input Laverghetta's students give to his own research. Student interest and students' questions have caused Laverghetta to focus on particular areas of investigation. He cites one case, when he introduced students to the concept of anisotropy--the phenomenon in which electrical properties differ along the X-axis (length), Y-axis (width) and Z-axis (thickness) of circuit boards. "A student then asked me how the current is measured in the Z-axis. I had to tell him I didn't know how to measure it. No one had ever tried." Laverghetta decided to find a way to measure the Z-axis, and after investigation, discovered it could be done. "Shortly after that, a company contacted me, asking about how to measure the Z-axis," Laverghetta recalls. "I developed this for measuring it." He holds up a small, rectangular metal device with probes at the four corners. "Thanks to my student's question, this is now a measurement device in industry."

Laverghetta, the author of ten books on microwave theory and practice, holds up his most recent publication with pride. He wrote Microwaves and Wireless, Simplified (Norwood, Massachusetts: Artech House, 1997) for nontechnical workers in the microwave industry. "This was a challenge," Laverghetta explains. "None of my other books are like this one. It explains microwave technology to laypeople. Can you imagine--I've got all the theory of microwaves, but without a single equation in the book?"

His knack for expressing complex ideas in an understandable way may be what makes Laverghetta so proficient as a teacher. Another reason might be his enthusiasm. Because of his heavy research load, he is required to teach only one course per semester, but Laverghetta voluntarily teaches two on-campus courses and an independent study course to students both on and off campus. "I'm so lucky to be doing what I love," Laverghetta reflects. "Teaching is exactly what I want to do, and just what I'm suited for."

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