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Putting the Fun in Programming Fundamentals - Robots Make Programs Tangible

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

FPD 1: Projects and Teamwork in First-Year Courses

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1012.1 - 23.1012.8



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Paper Authors


Todd R Hamrick West Virginia University

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Todd has over 20 years of engineering experience in industry. He has worked in process engineering, product development, product design, and technical sales. He recently returned to academia, and today he teaches and advises first year engineering students at West Virginia University. His interests include transition from high school to college, hands-on STEM education including robotics, and first year engineering curriculum development.

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Robin A.M Hensel West Virginia University

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Putting the Fun in Programming Fundamentals - Robots Make Programs TangibleA large state university teaches two semesters of engineering fundamentals courses to incomingfreshmen, the second of which is devoted to teaching Matlab programming as a tool forengineering problem solving. The course is project based, with projects generally requiringsoftware input and output. In the conventional version of this course, students are givenengineering problems to solve and apply what they learn about Matlab programming to solvethese problems. While many of the problems are based in real-world applications, they representa variety of engineering disciplines and are often theoretical in nature. They typically do notrequire students to build or construct anything.Some students are kinesthetic learners who learn best by using their hands, building andmanipulating things, in order to understand concepts. In order to better serve this population, aversion of the course was developed that used robots to create applied projects. The course wasoffered during a summer session. The same book and curriculum was used for the roboticapplication as is used in the conventional version, with robots used for project work. Theoreticalconcepts such as conditional statements and looping structures were applied to robot motions,which helped to make the theory highly concrete.Inexpensive robot kits were purchased, along with Arduino controllers, breadboards and somesimple electronics. Each complete robot kit with accessories cost less than $100. Because thekits were economical, students were able to work in very small groups, giving each studentample opportunity to work with their hands. Projects were designed so that programmingfundamentals were employed, with emphasis on techniques being taught during that time. In thisway programming fundamentals taught in class were directly employed in the projects. For eachproject teams collected data using the robots, and analyzed the data using Matlab. One projectrequired the robots to play a simple game against each other, pitting each team’s programmingskill against the others. Another project was open ended, allowing teams to use the robot to thefull extent of their programming skills. The students found such projects to be challenging andfun.Learning outcomes met or exceeded expectations. Students were observed to push theboundaries of their knowledge. On their own initiative, several students went beyond conceptstaught in the class in order to boost performance of their robots. Comparison with students whotook the conventional course was confirmatory. A comprehensive final exam was administeredto the summer students that was identical to the one administered to regular semester students inthe previous session. The robotic application students had higher median and mean exam scores,with significantly more students earning 100% on the final exam. Student feedback was alsovery favorable, with high marks given in all categories. Written student feedback indicated thatthe hands-on approach was highly valued. Many indicated that making the programmingtangible made the concepts more clear.

Hamrick, T. R., & Hensel, R. A. (2013, June), Putting the Fun in Programming Fundamentals - Robots Make Programs Tangible Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22397

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