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Combining a Virtual Tool and Physical Kit for Teaching Sensors and Actuators to First-year Multidisciplinary Engineering Students

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Virtual Laboratories: Experimentation and Laboratory-oriented Studies

Tagged Division

Experimentation and Laboratory-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Pamela L. Dickrell University of Florida

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Dr. Pamela Dickrell is the Associate Chair of Academics for the Department of Engineering Education, in the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. She focuses on effective teaching methods and hands-on learning opportunities for undergraduate student engagement and retention. Dr. Dickrell received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Florida, specializing in Tribology.

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Lilianny Virguez University of Florida

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Lilianny Virguez is a Instructional Assistant Professor at the Engineering Education Department at University of Florida. She holds a Masters' degree in Management Systems Engineering and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Virginia Tech. She has work experience in telecommunications engineering and teaches undergraduate engineering courses such as engineering design and elements of electrical engineering. Her research interests include the intersection of core non-cognitive skills and engineering students’ success.

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Engineering Design and Society is a first-year makerspace-based course for all engineering students to have hands-on experience with prototyping early in the curriculum. The technical skills covered as part of the course include individual student knowledge of hand tools, solid modeling, 3D printing, and Arduino-based microelectronics for control of engineering sensors and actuators. The course is focused on human-centered design and how engineers can use their design skills to help humanity. The overall structure of the course begins with two weeks on human-centered design, then five weeks on technical skills (solid modeling, 3D printing, Arduino electronics, introductory programming), and the last six weeks students work in multidisciplinary teams to design and build functional prototypes of a product to help society. At the end of the semester, teams create formal engineering design reports and give presentations of their functional prototypes. This work focuses on one of the technical skills aspects of the course, the Arduino-based sensor and actuator kits and related curriculum. Each student in the course purchases an Arduino starter set as the course “textbook” for individual ownership and more personalized experimentation in learning about common engineering sensors and actuators. In parallel to the physical Arduino kits, the course recently introduced the use of Tinkercad Circuits as a virtual tool to deliver modules relating to beginning sensors and actuators knowledge, microcontroller inputs and outputs, and beginning block programming for control of Arduino-based sensors and actuators. The virtual Arduino tool and the physical student-owned kits are used in combination to introduce the importance of sensors and actuators across all engineering majors. Curriculum focuses on using the virtual simulation tool to build and test wiring and programming online before physically building the Arduino electronics. This virtual tool and physical kit combination allows students to separate any errors that may occur in their programming and paths in the virtual tool from any issues that may occur from their physical kit builds (loose wiring, bad sensors or actuator components, etc.) For the semester of this research study, Engineering Design & Society, a hands-on makerspace course, was switched to a fully online course due to COVID. In this temporality online form the course modality was structured as an online synchronous course with individual at-home Arduino laboratory kits plus the parallel Tinkercad Circuits virtual tool. The learning objectives of the electronics portion of the first-year course include individual student confidence in selection, wiring, and programming of components to empower students to create functional “electronic guts” of their own engineering prototypes that take in signals from the environment and send controlled commands to actuators. This paper focuses on the integration of the Tinkercad Circuits Virtual tool for teaching block programming, control of sensors & actuators, and electronic prototyping. Impact on students is examined both qualitatively and quantitatively through student surveys on self-confidence in their Arduino-based use of sensors and actuators and introductory programming skills from course participation.

Dickrell, P. L., & Virguez, L. (2021, July), Combining a Virtual Tool and Physical Kit for Teaching Sensors and Actuators to First-year Multidisciplinary Engineering Students Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36811

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