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Comparing A Distance Learning And A Traditional Offering Of An Autonomous Robotics Practicum: Lessons And Observations

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Emerging Trends in Engineering Education Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.336.1 - 11.336.15



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Paper Authors


Richard Drushel Case Western Reserve University

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Dr. Richard F. Drushel is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of Biology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. He co-invented and has co-taught for 19 semesters a highly-successful LEGO- and microcontroller-based autonomous robotics course for undergraduates, as well as several summer courses for educators and secondary-school students. His research interests include 3-D kinematic modelling of soft-tissue structures in the feeding of marine molluscs, and the use of computers and robotics in education.

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John Gallagher Wright State University

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John Gallagher is dually appointed as an assistant professor in the both the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Electrical Engineering at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. His research interests include analog neuromorphic computation, evolutionary algorithms, autonomous robotics, and engineering education.

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Comparing a Distance Learning and a Traditional Offering of an Autonomous Robotics Practicum: Lessons and Observations


Introductory classes in the design and programming of mobile autonomous robots offer entertaining and engaging educational experiences that introduce students to the kinds of open- ended design problems faced daily by engineers. Nonetheless, these classes often require some prior computer programming experience, which raises the threshold of entry for early-career students who might most benefit from the extra motivation of solving deep, open-ended problems. In previous work, we discussed minimizing dollar cost and maximizing physical access to a robot by creating a WWW/webcam-based infrastructure with open-sourced robot simulation software. In this paper, we present our observations on the relative benefits and drawbacks of offering such practicum courses remotely, in light of our prior experience teaching similar robotics practica both remotely (using our WWW infrastructure) and in a traditional in- person laboratory setting. We compare and contrast examples of student work, including criteria for richness of interpersonal interaction, quality of engineered artifacts, and overall quality of student documentation and journals. We conclude with concrete suggestions to further improve online practicum courses in general, as well as a plan to test these suggestions in future offerings of our own online robotics practicum.

1. Introduction

Formal knowledge-based classroom instruction is necessary for the education of engineers. However, engineering education also requires practicum components in which students can experience both the joys and frustrations of actual design, implementation, and testing in an environment rich with possibilities and with the guidance of experienced mentors. In previous work 1 - 4, we addressed practical issues related to offering an autonomous robotics course over the World Wide Web (WWW). By constructing a centralized environment containing a web- connected mobile robot and providing 24/7 access to it via the Internet, we were able to leverage a single, expensive, robot to serve the needs of geographically-dispersed students. By providing an open-sourced Java-based robot simulation environment, we were able to relieve potential bottlenecks caused by many students testing early versions of their robot controllers on a single robot. Also, we were able to provide these simulators, which run on nearly any modern microcomputer, free of charge. This further relaxed financial burdens in offering the course and increased access to many under-represented demographics. Most of our past work on the online course has focused on the technical issues involved in system reliability and in maintaining sufficient fidelity between the simulator code and the actual robot. The point then was to increase physical access to facilities to many demographics that otherwise not be able to participate. In this paper, we will focus on evaluation of outcomes and assessment of impact on students. Our method will be to compare with a mature version of the course offered in a traditional manner. First, we will present detailed analysis of a previous, traditionally-offered version of the course. From this analysis, we will extract a set of measurable outcomes through which we can compare and contrast live and online offerings of this material. Finally, we will

Drushel, R., & Gallagher, J. (2006, June), Comparing A Distance Learning And A Traditional Offering Of An Autonomous Robotics Practicum: Lessons And Observations Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--1193

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