Active learning is an integral part of a meaningful education experience and what better way for engineering students to do so than through the creation of robots?
At Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, students in the honors sections of Charlotte de Vries’ EDGSN 100: Introduction to Engineering Design course have become more engaged in the classroom thanks to the ability to make Arduino prototypes. De Vries, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, started this project in the fall as a solution to lack of student engagement and interest in classes where students were unable to build actual prototypes.
Previously, rapid prototyping resources were limited at the Behrend campus, and de Vries had been looking into funding opportunities to solve the problem. Thanks to a grant from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, she was able to do so.
"I think prototyping is very important for students because there's a lot that works when you say, 'This is what I'm going to do,' and then actually trying to make it you are going to find a lot more hiccups,” she said.
In earlier semesters, students in de Vries’ class had two core projects: redesign of an electric toothbrush and design of a renewable water well for a developing country.
De Vries said the former involved students coming up with creative concepts of how they would design the toothbrush differently if they were given the opportunity. But at the end of the project, students only had a theoretical design.
"One of the challenges for first-year students is they don't have the background in engineering that allows them to make a very complex design but many of them have somewhat of a background, and they should be able to have that freedom to create,” de Vries said.
The water well project had been a long standby in de Vries’ class, an idea that was originally suggested by nonprofit organization Africa 6000 International. De Vries said students would work in teams of five, and each team would select a developing country and city that needed water accessibility. The teams would study their chosen area’s culture and needs. They would then learn about various topics that would aid them in their design, such as solar power, solar panels and wind turbines.
Now, de Vries said her students are using the Arduino to create a line tracking robot, a project where students assemble the Arduino, run the motors on their own and run the line sensors to gauge sensitivity at varying heights. When they develop the chassis, or base frame, for the robot, students are also being exposed to beta prototyping materials, such as cardboard, popsicle sticks, and zip ties. Integrating what they learn from the beta prototyping, they develop a final prototype, which involves the use of laser cutters and 3-D printers.