June 14, 2009
June 14, 2009
June 17, 2009
14.269.1 - 14.269.11
Balancing Breadth and Depth in Engineering Education: Unified Robotics III and IV
The Robotics Engineering program at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute integrates electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science concepts into a series of unified courses in robotics at the undergraduate level. A need to pack a large amount of technically and philosophically diverse multi-disciplinary material has created a number of challenges. Traditional engineering courses tend to cover a large amount of foundation material along with numerous examples of how this foundation applies to relatively ideal problems. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough time to build sufficient foundation in three different engineering and science disciplines. Further, attempts to do so would virtually ensure that we would not engage students quickly in their chosen area of robotics engineering. This paper describes the approach taken to balance conflicting goals and show how future generations of robotics engineers might be educated.
The Robotics Engineering (RBE) program at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is an attempt to integrate electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science concepts into a series of unified courses in robotics at the undergraduate level. Two Sophomore- level courses, RBE 2001 and RBE 2002, introduce students to many of the basic concepts of robotics at an introductory level. In these courses, students gain hands-on experience in the analysis of robot system components and in the implementations of simple robots to perform various tasks. Two Junior-level courses, RBE 3001 and RBE 3002, build on this foundation to ensure that students not only understand the analysis of selected components in a robotic system, but also gain an appreciation of the “system-level” design issues associated with the development of modular robotic systems.
Packing such a large quantity of technical material, covering such a technical and philosophical breadth of topical material, is an extraordinary challenge. In contrast, engineering professors are typically quite comfortable teaching a large amount of “foundation” material along with numerous examples of how this foundation applies to “ideal” problems. This approach echoes the “pour it in” model referred to by Smith were he states:
Consider the most common model of the classroom-based teaching and learning process used in engineering education in the past fifty years (and maybe currently?). This model ... is a presentational model where, as one pundit quipped, “the information passes from the notes of the professor to the notes of the students without passing through the mind of either one.”1
Using this model of education, students are simply expected to “know” how to use this “poured in” material to synthesize complex systems. Assuming that students will “just know” how and when to apply foundational concepts to solving engineering problems is an inefficient process at
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