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A First-year "Introduction to Engineering" Course at a Community College Using Hands-on MATLAB Experiment Control

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

FPD II: Hands-on Curriculum in the First Year

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.46.1 - 25.46.14

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Paper Authors


Stephen W. McKnight Northeastern University

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Stephen W. McKnight received a Ph.D. in solid state physics from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1977 and had postdoctoral positions at Emory University and as National Research Council Fellow at the Naval Research Laboratory before joining the faculty in the Physics Department at Northeastern University in 1980. In 1988, he became an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and in 2001 was promoted to Professor of electrical and computer engineering. He has published more than 50 refereed journal articles on microwave, far-infrared, and optical materials and devices and on innovative education programs. Since 2000, he has been the Education Thrust Leader for the Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems, an NSF Engineering Research Center headquartered at Northeastern, and is the Education Thrust Leader for the DHS ALERT (Awareness and Localization of Explosive Related Threats) Center at Northeastern University. He has served six terms on the Northeastern University Faculty Senate Agenda Committee, including three terms as the elected Secretary of the Faculty Senate, and wrote the ECE Department’s self-study report and coordinated the site visit preparations for the Electrical and Computer Engineering ABET accreditation in 2001 and 2007. In 2004-2005, McKnight served as Interim Chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and in 2008-2009 served as Acting Vice Provost for Research.

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Michael E. Pelletier Northern Essex Community College


Paula G. Leventman Northeastern University

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Paula Goldman Leventman has been Diversity Coordinator and Internal Evaluator for the NSF-funded Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems (CenSSIS) from 2000 to 2011. She was Assistant Dean of engineering for women’s projects at Northeastern University from 1982-2004. Leventman was Principal Investigator of the NSF-funded Multiple Pathways toward Gender Equity in the U.S. IT Workforce, 2001-2005, and at the same time, she was Principal Investigator of the NSF-funded 4 Schools for Women in Engineering, 2001-2005, which involved faculty and students from NU, BU, RPI, and Tufts with middle school teachers and students. Leventman also has a national reputation in social research and program evaluation. Over the last two decades, she evaluated numerous NSF supported teacher enhancement and engineering center programs. She held instructional academic positions at Boston College and Wellesley College. She is the author of Professionals Out of Work, Macmallan, 1981. She is currently a director and the program chair of the International Network of Women Scientists and Engineers (INWES), Education and Research Institute (ERI).

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A First-Year “Introduction to Engineering” Course at a Community College Using Hands-On MATLAB Experiment ControlFirst-year “Introduction to Engineering” courses have been widely adopted in engineeringprograms at universities nationwide as a response to excessive attrition, commonly exceeding50% -- mostly in the freshman year. The goals of these freshman courses are varied but typicallyinclude improved retention, engaging students in the practice of engineering, and reinforcing thelearning of fundamentals including applications of mathematics and science and, often, learningand applying programming skills.The advantages of hands-on exercises in achieving these goals have been widely discussed. Inparticular, interfacing computers or microprocessors to mechanical and electrical systems ispervasive in engineering practice and has been show to be conducive to enthusiastic learning, asin the FIRST international high school robotics competition. Barriers to more widespreadapplication of such computer control applications into first-year engineering courses include thecost and complexity of equipment, a lack of instructor time and expertise for coursedevelopment, and, perhaps, a perception of a lack of rigor in robotics exercises.We report on the introduction at a northeastern state community college of a new introduction toengineering course using computer controlled projects based on the fundamentals of ultrasoundwave propagation, spectroscopy, color identification, color-based sorting of objects. Theprojects are implemented using relatively low-cost electromechanical components and custom-designed parts fabricated by electrical shop and machine shop students at a localvocational/technical high school. The community college faculty member was assisted byfaculty at a national research university though workshops funded by national grants anduniversity research center educational outreach programs. The hands-on projects implemented inthe community college course are based on a similar first-year course at the university adaptedfor the more limited resources of the community college.The hands-on projects include measurement of the speed of sound, range-finding, and imaging ofa hidden object using 40 kHz ultrasound; distinguishing of olive oil from corn, soy, or motor oilthrough visible/IR spectroscopy; and identification and sorting of colored ping-pong balls using avideocam image and a stepper-motor-driven sorting mechanism. In addition to a standard GPIB-compatible oscilloscope, the most expensive equipment is a compact “no moving parts”spectrometer and light source (~$3000). (All costs are per station – our classes use 11 stationswith two students per station.) Other components include a USB A/D module (~$125), a steppermotor and controller chip (~$40), a micro-controller 40kHz burst mode signal generator (~$150),videocam (~$50), a stepper-motor-driven linear positioner (~$500), and various materials andparts (~$200). Software control is through pre-prepared m-files and student-written MATLABcode using the Image Acquisition, Data Acquisition, and Instrument Control toolboxes.Course assessment results will be presented through before-and-after student evaluation of theirengineering skills and knowledge, open-ended and quantitative post-course comments, andperformance on exercises and quizzes similar to those taken by students at the university.  Figure 1  Stepper‐motor‐driven carrousel for color sorting painted ping‐pong balls using videocam image.  This picture is taken in the university electrical engineering teaching lab. 

McKnight, S. W., & Pelletier, M. E., & Leventman, P. G. (2012, June), A First-year "Introduction to Engineering" Course at a Community College Using Hands-on MATLAB Experiment Control Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas.

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