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Project-Based Learning Curriculum for the Junior Year Based on Building a Laser Tag System

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Electrical and Computer Division Technical Session 7

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

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Paper Authors


Brad L. Hutchings Brigham Young University

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Brad L. Hutchings received the PhD degree in Computer Science from the University of Utah in 1992. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Brigham Young University. In 1993, Dr. Hutchings established the Laboratory for Reconfigurable Logic at BYU and currently serves as its head. His research interests are custom computing, embedded systems, FPGA architectures, CAD, and VLSI. He has published numerous papers on FPGA-related topics and is an inventor/co-inventor for 60+ patents.

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Stephen Schultz Brigham Young University

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Stephen M. Schultz has received B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, in 1992 and 1994, respectively. He received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, in 1999. He worked at Raytheon Missile Systems from 1999-2001. He has taught at Brigham Young University since 2002 and is currently a Full Professor. He has authored or coauthored over 100 publications and holds 10 patents. His research interests are in the area of optical fiber devices with an emphasis on optical fiber based sensors.

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This paper describes a Project Based Learning (PBL) curriculum that spans the junior year of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. This curriculum consists of two, lock-step semesters. During fall semester all juniors (120+ students) enroll in three, four-credit-hour core classes: 1) analog circuit design (ECEn 340), 2) signal processing (ECEn 380), and 3) embedded programming (ECEn 330). During winter semester students practice the concepts learned during these earlier core courses by constructing an advanced laser-tag system (the junior project). Laser-tag is an excellent target because it provides an engaging way to integrate the concepts and practices from very different areas of electrical and computer engineering.

The goals of this PBL curriculum are to: 1) increase student confidence, 2) provide students with a fun engineering experience, 3) provide opportunities for application of concepts from prior junior courses, and 4) administer the PBL curriculum so that, in the long term, TA and faculty loads are reasonable. Student confidence increases as students participate in a challenging project with a high potential for success. TA and faculty loads are managed by the availability of: 1) a dedicated youTube channel that provides a series of “how-to” and demonstration videos, and 2) a comprehensive set of test software and hardware fixtures that help students to incrementally test their system to ensure that each implemented module meets specifications. The “how-to” videos teach students how to use commercial design software based on best practices. Demonstration videos depict, in an unambiguous way, the system behavior that is expected during the pass-off of each milestone.

The resulting laser tag system runs on battery power, is portable, can detect “hits” from opponents that are up to 120 feet away (in daylight) and supports game-play between up to 10 players. The laser tag system is built using a high-performance embedded system that consists of an ARM processor, an Analog to Digital Converter (ADC), touch-screen TFT and other support components. Students build analog circuits that interfaces between the embedded system and a nerf gun that has been retrofitted with an LED and a photodetector. Students implement a real time algorithm on the embedded system that detects the modulated LED beam from an opponent. The entire system is brought together using software that runs on the embedded system resulting in about 4,200 lines of C code.

Students are organized into groups of four at the project outset; however, in order to ensure uniform student participation, each student is solely responsible for implementing their own entire laser-tag system during the first 10 weeks of winter semester. Students then participate as groups to collectively personalize their laser-tag system with some feature of their own design during the last three weeks of the semester.

The project is in its third year and is largely achieving all of its goals. Student surveys indicate that student confidence is increasing. Though students report the course as very challenging, the success rate for the course, as measured by the percentage of students who completely achieve all lab milestones and implement a working laser-tag game, is over 90%.

Hutchings, B. L., & Schultz, S. (2017, June), Project-Based Learning Curriculum for the Junior Year Based on Building a Laser Tag System Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28769

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