Hands-On Projects For Budding Engineers

Practical projects address real-world problems whose solutions benefit society

5 December 2008

ed01If you're an instructor looking for hands-on projects for your first-year class in electrical engineering, computer engineering, or computer science, your search is over. Eight projects covering such assignments as designing a prosthetic hand and developing error-correction codes for wireless communication systems were the 2007 winners of IEEE's Real-World Engineering Project contest. They are now available online for free.

Launched last year, the program aims to change how first-year engineering is taught by introducing practical projects that address real-world problems whose solutions can benefit society ["Real-World Projects Can Make a Difference," March 2007, p. 14]. The projects resulted from a request to engineering faculty around the world to submit two-week-long projects. Submissions included a summary lecture that discusses the project's challenges and trade-offs, as well as its possible impact on society. The eight projects were selected from more than 40 submitted last year. But the program isn't over. Projects received this year are being evaluated, and still more are being requested for next year.

FOR ALL STUDENTS While the original intent of the initiative was aimed at encouraging women to pursue degrees in electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science, "in reality what we're talking about is high-quality first-year education for all students," says the program's cofounder, IEEE Senior Member Amy Bell, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

"The program makes explicit the connection of how society is served by engineering," Bell adds. "Societal benefits appeal to women, but also to men."

And, she notes, there's the added bonus of the projects showing students how engineers serve society. "It's not nearly as clear to an average first-year student how our disciplines serve society compared with other professions," she says.

The program also benefits those who work in academia. "It's a tremendous service to faculty members for a respected organization like IEEE to provide them with two weeks of high-quality curriculum," Bell says. "Being able to download all the materials makes these exciting first-year projects possible."

HURDLES Projects are judged in three stages. The first step is to submit a one-page summary of the project, which is reviewed by a committee of IEEE members. The reviewers look for relevance, quality, and "discovery," according to the 2008 program chair, Joan Carletta, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Akron, in Ohio.

First and foremost a project must be related to IEEE's fields of interest and must involve a contemporary problem. The activities planned for the students must employ problem-solving strategies. In addition, the review panel looks for projects that lead the students to discover some underlying basic engineering principles.

"We don't want students doing some cookbook, follow-the-steps project," Carletta says. "We want them to see that engineers deal with trade-offs, so they get a taste of that in these design projects."

If a summary is accepted, a more detailed proposal is requested. And if that's accepted, a full project—which includes a syllabus, lesson plans, teaching notes, reading materials, and a sample test—comes next. The review panel provides feedback at every stage, Carletta says.

For their efforts, the winning authors each receive $5000, and they are invited to submit their work for publication in IEEE Transactions on Education and to present it at workshops.

ed02 Winning projects include small, motorized cars that make their way around a curvy track [above] and a prosthetic hand that grips a foam coffee cup

SOLUTIONS Among this year's winners were Chris Macnab and Laurence Turner from the department of electrical and computer engineering, at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. They teamed with James Smith of Ryerson University, in Toronto, and Karl Kalvaram of the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Jena, in Thuringia, Germany. Their project, "Manipulating Everyday Objects with Prosthetic Hands" [above] uses the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit, found in most engineering labs, to build a hand that grips and lifts both an empty and a full foam coffee cup. The kit includes a programmable microprocessor, sensors, encoders, and electric motors. "Robotics has many applications that have social benefits, with prosthetics foremost among them," Macnab notes.

Sami Khorbotly, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science at Ohio Northern University, in Ada, won for his "Error Correction Codes for Wireless Communication Systems." Students work in Matlab to code two simple error-correction schemes and simulate their use in a wireless channel. "The project doesn't need much of a math background, so it was a good fit for what the initiative was looking for," Khorbotly says.

Other projects deal with small, motorized cars that traverse a track [right], solid-state lighting for the developing world, and feedback-controlled brushless dc motors.

The winning 2008 projects are scheduled to be announced by 31 January. Abstracts for next year are being accepted; the deadline to submit is 1 February. New for 2009 is the addition of biomedical engineering as an eligible field.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, visit http://www.realworldengineering.org

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