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Revitalization of an Intro to ME Course Using an Arduino-Controlled Potato Cannon

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies: Aero and Mechanical Engineering

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Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Gerald Sullivan Virginia Military Institute

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Dr. Gerald Sullivan, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Virginia Military Institute, received his B.S.M.E. from the University of Vermont and his Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has held teaching positions at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the University of Vermont. Prior to joining the faculty at the Virginia Military Institute in the fall of 2004, he was employed by JMAR Inc. where he was involved in research and development of X-ray lithography systems for the semiconductor industry. His interests include mechanical design, acoustics applications and controls.

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Jon-michael Hardin P.E. Virginia Military Institute

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Jon-Michael Hardin, Ph.D. Professor and Department Chair in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Virginia Military Institute. He has degrees in mechanical engineering and theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of South Carolina and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. His areas of research interest include engineering education/pedagogy and engineering mechanics applications.

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Revitalization of an Intro to ME Course Using an Arduino Controlled Potato Cannon Project

Amongst their required courses in calculus, chemistry and the humanities, most freshmen engineering students take part in some form of “Intro to Engineering” course that describes their chosen field of study through labs and demonstrations designed to be simple and entertaining. In many engineering schools “Intro to Engineering” courses are worth only a single credit with students viewing it as the least important course on their schedule. Similarly, these courses are not always the top priority of the professors that teach them, and as such it is common to see labs and demos that remain unchanged for years at a time. Sadly, the potential of “Intro” courses to spark students’ interest, as well as to motivate them for future studies often goes unrealized.

At the University of X, the Mechanical Engineering has completely over hauled its Intro course in order to provide students with relevant experiences in the areas of:

• Machine shop practices/Fabrication • Electro-mechanical actuators • Computer Programming • Design

The centerpiece of the new Intro to ME curriculum is a 9 week lab sequence in which students build a small bore pneumatic powered potato gun that is controlled using an Arduino microcontroller. In the initial 3 weeks of the course, students learn to use the machine shop to fabricate the potato gun components. In the next four weeks, students are introduced to the Arduino microcontroller and use it to control a solenoid piloted pneumatic valve, (used to fire the gun), as well as a stepper motor, (used to adjust the angular position of the gun). Finally, in the last 2 weeks of this project, students integrate the electrical and mechanical components, along with a firing control program to operate the gun. While potato cannons are undeniably fun for students, the sequence of labs defined for the project has the more important benefit of creating a “hands-on” perspective from which to scaffold the abstract analytical material students will be exposed to as they progress through the mechanical engineering curriculum.

In this paper the authors will provide a detailed description of the lab sequence, emphasizing the skill sets developed over each part of the project. In addition, the results of a self-assessed skill-set inventory administered to students before starting the potato cannon project and then again at the end of the course will be discussed to show how the lab sequence influenced students’ beliefs about their capabilities in the area of mechanical design, electronics, and programming.

Sullivan, G., & Hardin, J. (2016, June), Revitalization of an Intro to ME Course Using an Arduino-Controlled Potato Cannon Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26109

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