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Programming is Invisible – or is it? How to Bring a First-year Programming Course to Life

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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

FPD II: Hands-on Curriculum in the First Year

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1079.1 - 25.1079.23



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Paper Authors


Beverly K. Jaeger Northeastern University

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Beverly Jaeger, Susan Freeman, and Richard Whalen are members of Northeastern University’s Gateway Team, a group of teaching faculty devoted to the developing and enhancing the First-year Engineering program at Northeastern University (NU). They also each maintain a close affiliation with the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering program at NU, bringing expertise from their majors to the first-year classroom. The focus of this team is to provide a consistent, comprehensive, and constructive educational experience that endorses the student-centered, professional, and practice-oriented mission of Northeastern University. Each of the authors has won multiple engineering teaching awards.

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Susan F. Freeman Northeastern University

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Richard Whalen Northeastern University

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Programming is Invisible – or is it?   How to Bring a First‐year Programming Course to Life At Unnamed University, the first‐year engineering curriculum is common for all majors and the general engineering courses typically have 20 to 25 separate sections of approximately 30 students each. The College of Engineering requires an Engineering Design course during the entering semester in which teaching principles of engineering and design is accomplished through “hands‐on” tasks for students in areas such as problem formulation, creativity stimulation, construction work, and associated reporting in relation to projects that students produce in teams. There is a strong emphasis on applying technical knowledge in a practical way and on developing analytical problem‐solving and decision‐making skills.  In the second semester, a course titled ‘Engineering Problem Solving with Computation’ centers on the practicality and applicability of logical solutions to real‐life problems using software tools such as Mathworks’ MATLAB and the C++ programming language. This second ‘programming’ course had not fully made the connection between software that has been written to solve a practical problem and how it might be used to run hardware in a visible –and experiential– way.  Students have asked why they need to learn programming and often would miss the association that many aspects of our daily existence are dependent upon software running hardware. It is not enough to tell students that required attributes to be a good engineer involve being proficient in problem solving and algorithmic thinking.  Therefore, it was decided to implement a hands‐on component in the programming‐based course to emphasize the importance of understanding how software and hardware are interlaced. The hardware‐application approach contrasts some of the more traditional methods used to teach algorithmic thinking skills and problem solving to first‐year engineering students. This paper will describe computing projects were added to the course that are used to control physical hardware in order to make a strong connection to the many embedded computing applications used in students’ everyday experiences.  Moreover, watching computer instructions produce light, sound, and motion engages the senses and provides the sort of immediate feedback that is essential for constructive learning. In order to accomplish the goal of introducing a low‐cost, easily integrated, hands‐on laboratory to over 600 students, Unnamed University teamed with the not‐for‐profit Anonymous Corporation and a pilot study was formed using a custom kit of electronic components in the Spring of 2010. The success of the pilot study resulted in a full rollout to all first‐year engineering students in the following Spring.   The kit for this “machine science” initiative includes a solderless breadboard, an ATmega168 microcontroller, an LCD text display, button switches, LEDs, a piezo‐speaker, a liquid crystal text display, a light sensor, a temperature sensor, resistors, capacitors, and various wires and connectors. A complete set of components costs less than $100 and can be packed into a single 11" x 6 5/8" x 2 3/4" Sterlite® small clip box for easy storage. This compact form is critical since programming courses are typically taught in a classroom with computers, monitors, and very limited table space. Students learn to light up LEDs, activate and read photosensors, place messages on LCD screens, generate sound on speakers, and elicit other outcomes using programming constructs from class. Projects were mapped to real‐ world problems and practical applications, which will be described in the full paper.   Evaluation of this new course component was essential in order to assess the value for the students. Students were surveyed prior to the implementation of the second iteration of the machine science module. They also provided feedback on several aspects of the module including the learning outcomes specifically related to this part of the course.  One set of questions focused on the skills or knowledge they felt this project had improved. The Figure 1 below reports the percent of students selecting each listed competency they felt they developed through machine science experiences.     Pe ercent Resp ponding 'Y Yes' for Eac ch Compet tency     90% 80% 70% 60% Percent  50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0%  Figure 1. Students' respon nses to identifyin ng skills or know wledge that the  “machine scien nce” experience improved. Referring to Figure 1, t the highest re eported comp petency, know wledge of elecctronics is no ot a surprising g result, but the selectio on of so manyy additional sk kills was more e than hopedd for, given that the “mach hine science” mmodule is a lim mited portionn of the cours ular, problem solving, expe se.  In particu erimental applicatio on, and thinking logically are objectives of the course e that are cha allenging to m measure.  As expected by the end of the course, students can compose wo orking programs, but the e emphasis is on the additional competencies that are m more difficult t to achieve. In addition, 64% of thee students repported a sens se of accompllishment, des spite the strugggles to make e things woork –or perhap ps as a result of the strugggles they over rcame.  Furthhermore, stud dents’ comme ents on what t they enjoyed further reflec ct the positivee contributionns of these projects. A sam mpling of ope en‐ended com mments men ntion:  design,, real applicattion of theory y, finished pro oduct work, m making a physsical project, le earning circuit hands‐on, leearned how c components w work together r, figuring out t the program ms, seeing sennsors work, application of hardware an nd software, h how they mad de me think, t tangible engineerin ng, making soongs (music), and real‐wor rld applicatio on.  Further ouutcomes and recommendations for universal imp plementation will be prese ented in the ffull publicatio on. Many enggineering proggrams have a added large sccale costly lab boratories with robotic pro ojects and instrumen ntation to acccomplish simiilar goals. How wever, the m machine scienc ce approach i integrates int to the course within the exist ting classroom m at a very low cost –less tthan a textbo ook– with stroong educationnal outcomess and enthusiasm. The paper r will describe e the develop pment of activ vities, the ass sessment on learning and engagement in the classroom, and the e advantages over other of fferings descrribed in the li iterature such h as using Leg go® Mindstorm ms or Parallax x BOE Bot® w which attemptt to accompli sh the same o objective, but at a much hhigher pricetag.  The objective e is to inspire e and guide ot ther educato rs to consider adopting a s similar low‐co ost, high‐yield d activity for t their first‐year engineeringg program cou urses.  

Jaeger, B. K., & Freeman, S. F., & Whalen, R. (2012, June), Programming is Invisible – or is it? How to Bring a First-year Programming Course to Life Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21836

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