Using hardware-based programming experiences to enhance student learning in a junior-level systems modeling course

Johné M. Parker, Stephen L. Canfield, Sheikh K. Ghafoor, Kassy M. Lum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This paper describes a hands-on enhancement for a junior-level Mechanical Engineering Systems Modeling lecture course. A primary outcome of the course is to prepare students to construct, understand and analyze linear time-invariant models for physical systems. Many of the core concepts introduced in class to achieve this outcome are considered rather abstract by a significant percentage of students and there are often considerable disconnects in their abilities to link theoretical course concepts, computational solution techniques and the behavior of real-world systems. We hypothesize in this paper that part of the difficulty is that the course is lecture-based, and that the inclusion of hands-on activities will improve student learning. This hypothesis is supported by a model which uses hardware to integrate programming experiences throughout the curriculum; in the model, the learning principles deemed critical for success are student engagement, knowledge transfer and self-directed learning. We posit in this paper that the introduction of hands-on activities involving hardware will enhance all three learning principles, resolve many of the disconnects and improve overall student learning. The specific hands-on activity discussed in this paper links the free response of an underdamped second-order system to the damping ratio and natural frequency parameters that characterize the system model. Secondarily, it introduces data acquisition via micro-controller hardware, thus integrating the behavior of real systems and the role of data acquisition with analytical techniques discussed during lectures. The instructor had previously taught the course several times, so a well-paced course schedule and solid foundation of course notes were already in place before the introduction of the hands-on activity. Additionally, hybrid and problem-based learning (PBL) techniques were incorporated to enhance student engagement, allow sufficient time to introduce the hands-on activity without sacrificing course content, and enable the instructor / research assistant / teaching assistant team to give necessary assistance and feedback during the activity. The hands-on programming toolkit developed by Canfield and Abdelrahman at Tennessee Technological University (TTU) for direct programming of micro-controller units (MCUs) was used to acquire the free-response data in the Modelling Course at the University of Kentucky (UK). This toolkit has also been used to teach programming skills to first- and second-year engineering students. In the junior-level Systems course, the overall goal is to enable students to validate the analytical modeling and solution of a second-order system on real-world hardware without being hampered by significant obstacles or requirements for implementation. The MATLAB-to-MCU toolbox effectively addresses this challenge by allowing students to acquire data and verify system models using MATLAB, a language they concurrently use to simulate system response, “directly” on the micro-controllers with little additional overhead requirements. An evaluation of the initial implementation of the hands-on activity is discussed and compared to the traditional (lecture-based) format. The paper concludes with a discussion of the effectiveness of the hands-on activity in enhancing student learning, the efficacy of the toolkit in upper-level courses, suggestions for improvement and plans for future work.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-34
Number of pages15
JournalComputers in Education Journal
Volume6
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 American Society for Engineering Education. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Computer Science
  • Education

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