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Teaching Computing To Engineering Freshmen Through A High Tech Tools And Toys Laboratory

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.936.1 - 6.936.11



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Paper Authors

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Stephen McKnight

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Gilead Tadmor

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E Everbach

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William E. Cole

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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

Multimedia Session 2793

Teaching Computing to Engineering Freshmen Through a “High-Tech Tools and Toys Laboratory”

S. W. McKnight, W. Cole, G. Tadmor, E. C. Everbach, and M. Ruane Northeastern University / Swarthmore College / Boston University


Freshman engineering courses in computing applications and programming often lack applications that are sufficiently engaging without being overwhelming. Program outputs and graphics within the reach of beginning students are often woefully primitive compared to computer graphics that are available in commercial gaming software. The students’ lack of background in engineering subjects commonly leads to applications that are simplistic, mechanical (e.g., number sorting), or heavily flavored toward mathematics or physics concepts (such as fluid friction) that student have only an uneasy grasp on. We have developed a two- quarter-hour freshman computing course taught entirely in a “High Tech Tools and Toys Laboratory,” equipped with HPIB-bus-linked test and measurement equipment, acoustic and ultrasonic transducers, and stepper-motor-controlled actuators. For a programming environment, we have selected MATLAB with the new Data Acquisition and Instrument Control Toolboxes. This environment will introduce fundamental computing concepts such as looping, conditional branching, and structured programming in a high-level language of continuing utility, but without the complications of variable typing and declarations. Early laboratory experiences include programming loops to cause stepper motors to move a flag, control through photocell feedback, and measuring acoustic velocity and distance by appropriately thresholding a reflected acoustic signal. As a final project, students write a program to control the movement of an ultrasonic sensor to image a metal target encased in an opaque gelatin package.

1. Introduction

Since computation is ubiquitous in engineering practice, a freshman course in computation or computer programming is a feature of most engineering curricula. These courses are often less than satisfactory for both the students and the instructor. While contact with computers is now almost universal in the home or in schools, students’ sophistication with computer operations and their knowledge of computer programming vary widely. Many students have completed courses in C or C++ or designed web pages on their own. Other students arrive at the university with only rudimentary knowledge (or less) of directory structures and file manipulation. Teaching across this wide spectrum of backgrounds and abilities is a challenge for the instructor.

This problem is intensified at institutions like our own where students from the different engineering disciplines are mixed during the freshman year. Thus aspiring computer engineers

Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright ©2001, American Society for Engineering Education

McKnight, S., & Tadmor, G., & Everbach, E., & Cole, W. E., & Ruane, M. (2001, June), Teaching Computing To Engineering Freshmen Through A High Tech Tools And Toys Laboratory Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 10.18260/1-2--9856

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