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Labs Appropriate for Lecture-based Introductory Systems and Controls Classes Using LEGO NXT and Labview

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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

Laboratory Development in ECE II

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.876.1 - 25.876.16

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Greg N Droge Georgia Institute of Technology


Bonnie H. Ferri Georgia Institute of Technology

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Bonnie Ferri received her B.S. degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1981 and her Ph.D. degree from Georgia Tech in 1988. She is currently a professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Ferri works in the general area of control theory.

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JillL L. Auerbach Georgia Institute of Technology

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Labs appropriate for lecture-based introductory systems and controls classesusing LEGO NXT and LabviewDistributed laboratories contain experiments that can be done in various locations such as homes,classrooms, and dorm rooms. These labs utilize inexpensive equipment and student resources such aslaptops, and do not require the specialized equipment housed in centralized laboratory locations. As such,these experiments are well-suited for inclusion into lecture-based classes to be done at the desks in theclass room or to be taken home as a project. These types of experiments allow for a new pedagogicalmodel that promotes a more complete integration of theory and laboratory experience within the format ofa standard lecture-based course.To maximize the benefits of incorporating experiments into a lecture course, the laboratory moduleshould not only excite students about the material, it should fully support or demonstrate a fundamentalprinciple that is hard to understand from theory alone. The concepts demonstrated in the lab shouldappear in standard course evaluation methods such as in-class exams. One way to satisfy these needs isfor the laboratory modules to contain supplemental material including a tutorial for students on thefundamental concepts being taught and an online quiz that gives representative questions on the materialthat might be found on a standard exam.Control theory can be a highly abstract subject when taught as part of an introductory Systems andControls course. For many students, hands-on experience would solidify concepts such as systemidentification, root locus and Bode plot design, and discretization. Many schools offer a lab-basedsenior-level course in control systems while others only offer a control experiment as part of a larger,more broad-based lab. The labs discussed in this paper are not meant to replace these advanced labs butrather to introduce the laboratory experience into earlier, more theoretical courses.The LEGO NXT platform was chosen for the distributed experiments in controls because it has thefeatures of being portable, low-cost, and not fragile while obtaining technical results that are acceptablefor an introductory course. LEGO kits have been used in a variety of experiments at the university level.Early papers on the subject used the LEGO Mindstorm RCX kit as the platform while more recent paperscapitalize on the enhanced features of the LEGO NXT platform. Most common LEGO-based experimentsfall into one of the following categories: introduction to engineering (little reliance on theory),mechatronics and robotics, or programming.Many papers that describe LEGO experiments do not discuss the mode of delivery (how/where theexperiment is conducted). Virtually all of the remaining papers use the LEGO kits in a traditionallaboratory setting with a dedicated lab space and multi-hour lab sessions as opposed to the distributed labsetting discussed in this paper.The use of LEGO kits in introductory systems and controls courses is described in a few papers. Only thetechnical aspects of the labs are described in most of these papers. No discussion of the mode of delivery,pedagogical issues, logistics, or student assessment is included. This paper differs from previous papers inthat it implements the distributed laboratory concept where the labs are structured to be done in aclassroom while students are at their desks or by students in their dorm or home.Three labs will be described in this paper, all based on motor control. The first is a PID tuning motorvelocity control experiment that is completed in-class during a typical 50 minute lecture. The other two, avelocity control experiment and a position control experiment, are completed at home as part of take-home projects.The associated website for the Control System Module includes downloadable LabVIEW VIs, the projectwrite-ups in MSWord documents (for instructors to modify), a brief tutorial on the fundamental conceptsused in the experiment, a video tutorial on the LabVIEW VIs, LabVIEW help for the project, and a set ofonline test problems (written in FLASH) that reinforce student understanding of fundamental concepts.These test problems are representative of test problems that would be given in a lecture-based course.To assess the learning objective on a more rigorous level, a Concepts Inventory style of test wasused. The control group was a section taught by the same instructor without the LEGO experiments. Theconcepts inventory test includes several questions from the Signals and Systems Concepts inventory, bothcontinuous-time and discrete-time along with some additional questions related to control theory. The testwas given at the beginning of the course and again at the end of the course. The experimental groupshowed significant improvement over the control group in most of the topics covered by theexperiments. Two of the topics in which there was no difference between the groups were ones inwhich both groups performed well indicating that enhancement of the material through experiments wasnot needed.

Droge, G. N., & Ferri, B. H., & Auerbach, J. L. (2012, June), Labs Appropriate for Lecture-based Introductory Systems and Controls Classes Using LEGO NXT and Labview Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas.

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