Student Teacher: Murray Makes Imprint on Embedded Systems Class

Industry Communications: Winter 2021-22

By Phil Carter

Sam Murray holding up a computer chip
Sam Murray
When electrical engineering majors register for a new embedded systems class in the spring of 2022, the students will be choosing a course assembled by one of their own.

As a graduate student, Sam Murray knew a day would come when he had to teach a Nebraska Engineering course, so the Cortland, Nebraska native decided to build his own. Taking a “by a student, for students” approach Murray, with assistance from Sina Balkir, professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), and Mike Hoffman, ECE professor, began engineering the embedded systems class using ECE’s own integrated circuit solutions in addressing a variety of research needs, including the intersection of the hardware with software for operation and control related to the use of “smart” electronics.

“The class itself is about electronics and how embedded systems work,” said Murray, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UNL in 2018 and is a current Ph.D. student at Nebraska. “Like a cellphone is a complicated version of ‘smart’ electronics or even a garage door when it receives messages to open or close.”

Balkir says Murray developed a custom version of the public domain RISC-V processor and created his own embedded controller around it to be included in the single “System-on-a-Chip” (SoC) design. RISC-V, the Linux of the chip world, is a technical breakthrough when it comes to chip design and for Murray to fabricate his own design for the curriculum didn’t go unnoticed.

“This is a first in our curriculum, where an embedded systems class will leverage an in-house microcontroller with an anticipated positive impact on the undergraduate research activities within the department,” stated Balkir, who has been a member of the ECE faculty after serving as a visiting professor of electrical engineering at UNL from 1998 to 1999. “As the embedded controller chip is custom designed by one of our own, the resources on the chip are aligned well with the degree requirements in several pivotal areas such as embedded systems applications, interfacing with outside information sources, employing both analog and digital processing techniques, and programming.”

Murray has been fully instrumental in all aspects of the course from design of a custom RISC-V to its accompanying documentation, including software tools, evaluation kits and application examples.

“Sam is very talented and has a lot of self-determination,” added Hoffman, who also serves as one of Sam’s co-advisers for graduate school. “And he’s very curious, too. That’s a great combination.”

Murray’s curiosity turned into motivation to teach by example and show other students how important it is to be creative and resourceful when it comes to this type of technology.

“A good engineer is one who’s passionate about what they’re doing,” explained Murray, who was awarded a Milton Mohr Graduate Fellowship in 2018. “This is the passion stirring in me, all the cool things I could do in making our own, designing our own microchips so we can show the students how it’s done.”

When it comes to a fervor for electronics, Murray didn’t have to go far to find influences, especially within his own family. His grandfather is an ardent ham radio operator while his father’s career oversees electronic security for banks. He also credits teachers at Norris High School for allowing him to embrace his enthusiasm of electronics.

“When it came to robotics and programming,” Murray said with a smile, “I just ate it all up.”