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Racing To Understanding: Instrumentation Lab With Radio Controlled Cars

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1999 Annual Conference


Charlotte, North Carolina

Publication Date

June 20, 1999

Start Date

June 20, 1999

End Date

June 23, 1999



Page Count


Page Numbers

4.434.1 - 4.434.8

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Paper Authors

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Michael Ruane

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3353

Racing to Understanding: Instrumentation Lab with Radio-Controlled Cars

Michael Ruane Electrical & Computer Engineering, Boston University


Freshmen engineering students are being introduced to electronic measurement and instrument control using radio-controlled cars in a new Introduction to Engineering module. The seven- week module is conducted as a hands-on laboratory experience using HP VEE, a commercial software package for instrument control and graphical programming. Engineering content includes basic descriptions of signals, simple electronics, use of oscilloscopes, function generators, multimeters, and power supplies, open-loop control, user interface design, and the details of HP VEE and GPIB.

The Radio Shack Black Wolf II cars used have proportional controllers with joysticks for steering and velocity, and use pulse position modulation on a 27 MHz carrier. Cars with four bands are available allowing students to run several cars simultaneously. The controllers were modified to allow students to examine control signals and the carrier. They measure pulse characteristics and deduce the control scheme. Next students create their own control signals with HP VEE and download them to a function generator that bursts them to the transmitter. The HP VEE panel must be designed with an intuitive user interface. Finally students must devise a control plan to navigate a rally course in the lobby of the engineering building. The "final exam" is their rally performance.


Helping freshman engineering students become familiar with the “real world” practice of engineering while meeting heavy first-year curriculum requirements has been a continuing challenge1,2. At Boston University this problem is addressed with a required 4 credit course, "Introduction to Engineering", organized as two half-semester modules. The course is offered each semester to half of the freshmen class. The other half takes a required course on engineering computation. Typically 8-12 faculty from the College's four departments offer modules. Other recent modules have included CAD, machine design, electronic music, image processing, the human genome, and fiber optics.

Each module is intended to be a stimulating and confidence-building experience. Students are encouraged to explore their engineering interests and “tinker” with different majors as much as possible. The goal is not to create an early cognitive lesson as much as to demonstrate that engineering can be relevant, interesting and even fun! Modules usually introduce aspects of a particular engineering discipline, cover some basic engineering problem-solving skills, cultivate professional and independent learner attitudes, and bring first-year students in contact with engineering faculty3. Modules operate independently, but a course coordinator administers

Ruane, M. (1999, June), Racing To Understanding: Instrumentation Lab With Radio Controlled Cars Paper presented at 1999 Annual Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina.

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