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High-Tech Tools for Freshman Engineers

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

First-year Programs Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.775.1 - 22.775.11



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Paper Authors


Chitra Javdekar Massachusetts Bay Community College, Wellesley Hills MA 02481

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Professor, Mechanical Engineering and Chair, Engineering Department

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Stephen W. McKnight Northeastern University

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Stephen W. McKnight is a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern with over 40 refereed journal publications on microwave, far-infrared, and optical materials and devices and on innovative education programs. He is the Education Thrust Leader for the DHS ALERT (Awareness and Localization of Explosive Related Threats) center at Northeastern University, and 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. In 2004 - 2005, Prof. 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

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Professor Emeritus of Computer Technology & Engineering at NECC. Currently Project Director for STEP-UP at NECC.

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High Tech Tools for Freshman Engineersfirst year engineering programs and retention:While Science and Engineering capacity has increased across the globe and greater cross-bordercollaboration has been made possible due to the availability of a larger pool of researchers, thispresents definite challenges to U.S. competitiveness in high technology areas, and to its positionas a world leader in critical S&E fields (National Science Board, 2010). The competition haslarger impact within US as the proportion of Natural Sciences and Engineering (NS&E) degreesas a share of total degrees conferred in US has declined by approximately eight percent from2002 to 2007 (NSB, 2010). There is evidence to suggest that some of this decline can beattributed to the student attrition during their first one or two years from the science andengineering programs.Previous studies have indicated that significant student attrition or “switching” from science andengineering educational programs to other fields occurs during the first one or two years ofcollege in a study (Seymour, 2001), making the first year college experience for students acritical one in the choice of their careers. Several models have been used to describe the attritionof STEM students including a leaky pipeline model, a path model and statistical models based onpre-college characteristics for incoming freshmen as indicators of their future retention inengineering programs (Veenstra et al, 2009). However, it should be noted that one of theimportant findings of Seymour (2001) is that the proportion of students switching (40%) becauseof “inadequate preparation in high school math and science” is almost equal to the proportion of“non-switchers” (38%) reporting inadequate preparation in those subjects. This suggests thatalthough inadequate preparation in Mathematics and Sciences in the high school is one of themajor reasons for switching, it does not mean that the non-switchers who remain in the programsmight be more comfortable with their level of preparation and the reasons for their “staying thecourse” may be different than a perceived lack of preparation. In an ethnographic study(Seymour and Hewitt, 1997) additional reasons for switching to non-SME disciplines: lack orloss of interest in science; or a belief that a non-SME major holds more interest or, offers a bettereducation; and feeling overwhelmed by the pace and load of the curriculum demands, have beennoted.One of the major characteristics of engineering curriculum on engineering education, unlike thefields of Law, or Medicine, an undergraduate degree in engineering is the first professionaldegree for engineers (Shepard et al, 2008) after which they are expected to go to work with skillsand demonstrate flexibility while working in a demanding and complex workplace environment.Study of most engineering curricula usually indicates very high workload in the freshman yearthat consists of several essential science and mathematics course sequences in their freshmanyear with scattered engineering design experiences or introduction to engineering seminars. Abasic analysis of the courses taken at a four-year public institution in Massachusetts showed thatin their freshman year, students typically spend eighty percent of the time in taking courses thatare not directly linked to their chosen profession of engineering and do not get a chance tointeract with their “engineering” faculty at their institution, or experience engineeringlaboratories or the opportunity to use sophisticated engineering tools to solve engineeringproblems to develop an appreciation for the engineering programs at two-year institutions:Nearly forty percent of engineers who graduated between 1999- 2000 attended a communitycollege at some point during their studies (NAP, 2005). Despite this broader contribution of thecommunity colleges in educating the engineers in our education system, the material andfinancial resources available to these two-year undergraduate institutions remain considerablylower than their four year institution counterparts. In addition, some community college facultymembers may not receive the opportunity to further their knowledge in their respective fieldsthrough professional development, or to bring in this updated professional knowledge to theirclassrooms due to the lack of resources. This puts the engineering programs in communitycolleges at considerable risk of losing students due to lack of early engagement in their chosenfield to other non-science or engineering fields and this in turn negatively impacts the fundingavailable to the community colleges due to their perceived lower graduation or retention rates.During the current economic times, community colleges will continue to attract engineeringstudents due to the quality, support and cost of the educational programs and influence theoverall retention rates of US institutions. The impact of community colleges in preparing futureengineers may warrant additional attention to faculty professional development and early studentengagement and retention at the community colleges. Fostering meaningful collaborativepartnerships between local four year institutions and community colleges, and building capacityof community colleges can help in serving this student population better.influencing change in undergraduate education at Community College:A five-year National Science Foundation grant allowed three community colleges to partner witha private research institution to increase student participation in the Science, Technology,Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs. This grant laid the foundations for buildingbridges between community colleges and research institutions, for aligning courses andcurriculum, and resulted in increased opportunities for the community college faculty andstudents to participate in summer Research Experience for Teachers (RET) and ResearchExperience for Undergraduates (REU) programs. During the initial phase of this grant, ourcollege was able to review and align our courses and programs with those offered at four yearinstitutions and a new course on “Engineering Computation with Application Software” wasadded to the engineering curriculum. This course is also offered at the four year institution as arequired course for its freshmen engineering students.The NSF grant has also been successful at positively impacting the communication among theinstitutions and availability of resources. As a result of the increased communication channelsregarding the availability of professional development opportunities, several community collegefaculty members applied for a two-week workshop at a research center at the four year institutionand were given an opportunity to experience an engineering laboratory course on engineeringproblem solving and computation at the four year institution. The laboratory environmentimmerses students in engineering problem solving and discovery by giving sophisticatedengineering tools in their hands as early as their freshman year. The intensive two weektraining/workshop led to broader discussions on applicability of the course to engineeringstudents at community colleges and to collaborations needed to successfully replicate/adapt andtest the course modules at the community colleges.This course is taught at a community college with significant contribution of resources andexpertise from the regional research university. While this course does not significantly differfrom the previous implementation at the research university, the implementation of this course ata community college is novel as it represents a strong commitment of all the institutions involvedin creating engaging curriculum at a community college. The collaboration is synergetic, sinceall partner institutions have fulfilled a definite, complementary and unique role in the process:with the research university providing the expertise, funding, and training/capacity building; withone community college partner supervising the development of the low-cost equipment and theother community college partner implementing and testing the modules in a new course, andmeasuring learning outcomes. The research university also facilitated an academic support awardof Matlab® software along with the Matlab® data acquisition and instrument control toolboxesfrom MathWorks, Inc. to three partner institutions for the development of this course. Thecurrent course implementation also creates a broader impact as it will serve to guide othercommunity college partners who are also designing a similar course into their engineeringcurricula and the broader academic community.pedagogical strategies:In most traditional classrooms, instructor delivers information and students receive it mostly aspassive learners. This approach has been observed to have lesser long term impact on student-learning outcomes than desired. Carl Wieman suggests „approaching teaching of Physics as aPhysics experiments‟ to allow the knowledge transfer to take place with a higher opportunity forretention of the concepts and ideas. This approach consists of „collecting and utilizing validquantitative data (both one's own and those from the research of others), using quantitativestatistical analysis to extract information from experiments involving imperfectly controlleddegrees of freedom, and taking advantage of useful new technology‟ (Wieman, C., 2005). Theapproach used by the four year research institution when it developed two new courses forengineering problem solving is very similar to the above approach suggested by Wieman, andtheir first course was offered in 2003 when they aimed to give sophisticated, modern tools in thehands of the engineers early on and create engaging and stimulating learning experiences.The new course is a freshman year (second semester) 4 credit course, and is designed to create anovel and engaging engineering laboratory environment in which first year engineering studentslearn programming in Matlab and C ++ by controlling low-to-moderate-cost high-tech toolssuch as sensors, stepper motors, spectrometers, data acquisition systems, and instrument controltoolboxes. The students thus learn to program and at the same time see engineering tools atwork. Matlab is a widely used software package and engineering programs at most transferinstitutions require at least one course in Matlab or C++ programming. This course has beendesigned to transfer as a programming class or as an Introduction to Engineering course with ahands-on laboratory.Modules designed include experiments with stepper motors, spectroscopic discrimination ofolive oil from soy oil, corn oil, and motor oil; imaging, color recognition, and sorting of paintedping-pong balls with a video-cam. The modules have been chosen so they can present a varietyof interesting engineering problems to the students. To keep the cost of experiments down, someof the equipment such as dial gages with photo sensors was assembled with the assistance of anelectronics class at a local vocational/technical high school.At the beginning of the semester, students are provided hands-on instruction for specifyingvariables, data types, and basic Matlab commands to manipulate arrays. Students are also givenbasic instruction on using C++ programming language to write simple programs. In a few days,students start using the tools and control equipment by writing small, simple programs. Studentsare given handouts for the laboratory experiments. The handouts are designed carefully so thatstudents are presented with all the necessary information and are simple, thought-provokingquestions are posed at regular intervals to guide them slowly toward becoming independentlearners and experimenters. During the course of time, students are expected to gain enoughconfidence in handling small equipment safely, write simple programs, and develop an attitudefor learning from data they collect. Students are expected to write and document the programs,and participate in classroom discussions. The evaluation strategies include emphasis onapproach to the problem solving, laboratory submissions, in-class exams. Some of the experiments (lab modules) that are being implemented at the community collegeamong others at the Community college are described.course modulesExperiment 1. Control of Stepper MotorThis experiment uses a control box, a stepper motor on a mount, an indicator flag mounted onthe motor shaft, a protractor attached to the face of the mount, indicating the rotation angle of theflag, two photo resistor cells, light emitting diodes (LEDs) mounted near the respective photoresistors and MATLAB software on a PC, including the Instrument Control & Data AcquisitionTool Boxes..In this experiment, students are introduced to MATLAB and write simple MATLAB programs tomove a light-weight indicator (flag) attached to a stepper motor through a series of steps. This isone of the first experiments for students and at this stage students do not need elaborateprogramming skills required for programming the board. Instead, students use pre-writtenMatlab m-files STEP.M, CW.M, and CC.M to control the movement of stepper motor such ascausing the motor to rotate clockwise or anticlockwise through given number of steps. Studentswrite loops to move the motor through a number of steps, use a protractor to measure the anglethe flag rotated from the original position, and calculate the angle per step from thismeasurement. Students then estimate the error in their determination and conclude that theirmeasurements are more precise if they use a larger number of steps. The concept of “feedback isintroduced by having the indicator pass over two photo-sensors monitored by a multi-meter.Their final program causes the flag to move from an arbitrary initial position to the firstphotocell, stop, turn on a light-emitting diode, then reverse directions and go to the secondphotocell position. The program thus includes sequential programming steps, conditionallooping (WHILE statements), and a simple threshold test on the photocells.Experiment 2. Computer Control of Digital Output Using C++In this lab, a stepper motor is controlled by a National Instruments NI USB2008 A/D module.Students learn writing a C++ program to control the digital output of NI USB 6008 and use it tocontrol a stepper motor to rotate through fixed angles and change directions. Students will alsolearn to use functions in the National Instruments Data Acquisition (NIDAQ) libraries to controlthe outputs. The stepper motor is connected to the calibrated dial and a stepper motor controllerin the aluminum box. The controller has two inputs, labeled “Clock” and “Direction.” Studentsconnect the Clock input to an input port and the Direction input to another input port. Thecontroller has circuitry to cause the stepper motor to make one step counterclockwise if itreceives a single rising pulse in Clock and the Direction input is held at 5V and clockwise ifthere is a rising pulse on Clock and the Direction input is held at 0V. Students learn to controlthe movements of the stepper motor by writing a for loop in C++ and also estimate the torque atwhich the stepper motor will cease to function as intended and will skip steps.Experiment 3. Ping Pong Ball sorting experiment using C ++In this lab students learn how to download an image from video cam and analyze the output todetermine the color of a uniformly colored object, such as a ping pong ball, that the video cam isfocused on. A small metal stand holds the ping pong ball ready in front of a steady fixed videocamera focused on this object. Students are provided with two C++ functions that help themcapture the image of the ball. Students focus on a pixel in the center of the image and identifythe color of the object using the R, G, B mapped values for the pixel. For simplicity, students areprovided balls with only Red, Green or Blue colors so they can be identified easily. The nextstep of this experiment is to identify color of several ping pong balls and to sort them out intocorrect slots. A transparent tube holds the balls whose colors need to be identified and a stepper-motor-controlled rotating receptacle holder is positioned under the input column. The video-cammounted on the ring stand that holds the input column is focused on the lowest ball. Based on thecolor of the lowest ball, the stepper motor rotates the appropriate receptacle under the inputcolumn and releases the ball to let it fall into the right receptacle.assessmentAssessment of student experience during this course is not yet complete. The full assessmentwill be presented along with the overall student satisfaction from this course. Students will besurveyed about their experience in this classroom as compared to the courses with similardifficulties in a traditional format. Students will also be surveyed about their perceiveddifficulties or lack of preparation, and whether or not, they enjoyed the experiments; and iftaking this course influenced their opinion about the engineering profession.conclusion:We have reported the development of an engaging hands-on laboratory course on engineeringcomputation using Matlab and C++ at a community college. We have also presented the designof student experience, and the collaborations required to implement the course. We show that itis possible to enhance the educational offerings at community college through a determinedeffort and support from regional research universities and impact the development of futuregeneration of engineers positively.acknowledgments:The authors would like to acknowledge the academic support award provided by MathWorks,Inc. and from the financial support provided by the National Science Foundation and______________ and ____________ school that made this possible. The authors would alsolike to thank the graduate students at the research university for writing the required functions inMatlab and C++.References:National Science Board (2010) "Science and Technology Indicators; 2010" (accessed January 18, 2011)Seymour, E. (2001) “Tracking the Processes of Change in US Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics,Engineering, and Technology ”, “Issues and Trends” Editor Stephen Norris Published by John Wiley and Sons Inc.,2001 DOI 10.1002/sce.1044Veenstra, C. P., Dey, E. L. and Herrin, G.D. (2009) “A Model for Freshman Engineering Retention”, Advances inEngineering Education, ASEE, Volume 01, Winter 2009Seymour, E. and Hewitt, N. (1997) “Talking About Leaving: Why the undergraduates leave the sciences”. Publishedby Westview Press, Boulder ColoradoShepard, S.D., Macatangay, K., Colby, A., Sullivan, W. M. (2008) “Educating engineers, designing for the future ofthe field” Book Highlights of research published by Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, 2008( (accessedJanuary 18, 2011)National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning (1999) “How PeopleLearn; Brain, Mind, Experience and School”. Editors: Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L. and Cocking, R. R.; NationalAcademy Press, Washington DCNational Academy of Engineering and National Research Council of the National Academy Press (NAP) (2005)“Enhancing Community College Pathway to Engineering Careers”, Published by National Academy Press, 2005,ISBN 0-309- 09534-4Wieman, C. (2005) New Pedagogy in Introductory Physics and Upper-level AMO Courses American PhysicalSociety, 36th Meeting of the Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, May 17-21, 2005, abstract#3A.001

Javdekar, C., & McKnight, S. W., & Pelletier, M. E. (2011, June), High-Tech Tools for Freshman Engineers Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18056

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