Teaching Measurement and Control to 400 Engineering Students Using Mobile Robots and Quadcopters

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"The blended learning approach with a flipped classroom can be beneficial to teaching practical data acquisition skills, but a whole unit taught in this manner may overwhelm students."

- Dr. Andrew Weightman, University of Manchester

The Challenge:
Teaching data acquisition and experimental methods to undergraduate mechanical and aerospace engineering students with a more hands-on learning environment, whilst improving the efficiency of delivery, and reducing staff workload.

The Solution:
Adopting a blended learning style with a flipped classroom approach in which students engaged with online video lectures before hands-on learning sessions with a myDAQ device, and using a small group project with Parrot AR drones and hybrid DaNI robots to develop design, implementation, and operation skills.

Author(s):
Dr. Andrew Weightman - University of Manchester
Dr. Andrew Kennaugh - University of Manchester
Eddie Whitehouse - University of Manchester

Background

Founded in 1824, the University of Manchester has a distinct focus on furthering higher education and research by attracting and retaining high-quality students. In the past academic year, the school of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering changed its second-year undergraduate program structure with the aim of enhancing the curriculum, improving the student experience, improving the efficiency of delivery, and reducing staff workload.

A New Course 

As part of this process, we required a new course with the objectives of equipping undergraduate mechanical and aerospace students with LabVIEW programming skills and the theoretical understanding and practical skills for data acquisition. Furthermore, we required experience in experimental and software design and the implementation and operation of mechatronic systems.

We developed the syllabus, delivery, and assessment of the new course, called Data Acquisition and Experimental Methods, with tight constraints including a large cohort size (160 mechanical and 80 aerospace students) and assuming students have little previous experience of computing and potentially negative preconceptions considered. We mapped the assessment directly to the learning objectives as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Mapping the Course Assessment to the Learning Objectives

The Weekly Learning Cycle

We adopted a blended learning approach as illustrated in the weekly learning cycle in Figure 2. Students engaged with online lecture slides and videos before a hands-on session reinforcing concepts and developing practical skills. This approach would not be possible without using the NI myDAQ device and protoboard as they have excellent functionality at a low cost, which helped us deliver the sessions efficiently to large cohorts. This approach, which we referred to as the flipped classroom, was staffed by three academic staff members and 13 postgraduate demonstrators.

Figure 2. The Weekly Learning Cycle

In addition to the flipped classroom, we expected students to engage with self-study activities. We also ran a weekly drop-in session where they could ask for help with any aspect of the course.  

The Small Group Project

We utilised a small group project to teach skills in the design, implementation, and operation of mechatronic systems. We used the group project as an opportunity to illustrate the relevance of the course materials to the students’ programmes of study. We used Parrot AR drones, through the third-party add-on AR Drone Toolkit for LabVIEW, to teach aerospace students. The group project for mechanical students used a DaNI robot with the Single-Board RIO replaced with a myRIO to increase the speed and simplicity of programming.

Both the aerospace and mechanical group projects required students to amend an existing LabVIEW virtual instrument that manually controlled the Parrot AR drone or DaNI robot. The task required them to program the Parrot AR drone or DaNI robot to autonomously navigate around a race course in the fastest possible time. We used relative marking to introduce a competitive aspect to the course, which motivated students to engage with the activity.

Figure 3. The Final Demonstration: Student Group’s Quadcopter Autonomously Navigating a Square Course

Student Performance

The overall student performance on the course, as measured through the distribution of marks, was acceptable with a mean of 57.6 percent for the cohort. The majority performed well, with a number of students attaining high percentages. However, a tail end to the distribution illustrated how some students did not adapt to the blended learning and flipped classroom approach.

Student Feedback

We received feedback for the course from 36 students. We measured this feedback using a visual Likert scale and questions, with a value of 5 indicating a strong agreement and a value of 1 indicating a strong disagreement. When asked, “Overall, I would rate this course as excellent,” students gave a mean score of 3.6 out of 5. Students responded to the statement, “The lecturer presented the material in an effective way,” with a mean score of 4.1 out of 5.

Positive feedback showed that the course was interesting, fun, and useful. The Wordle in Figure 4 illustrates the 20 top words in the positive feedback. Student feedback on how the unit could be improved focussed on assessment, the level of difficulty, and the number of topics. The Wordle in Figure 5 illustrates the 20 top words in the improvement feedback.  

Figure 4. Top Words in the Positive Feedback Regarding the Unit

Figure 5. Top Words on How the Unit Could Be Improved

The first year of delivery of any new course is challenging. We recognise that an iterative process to improve the unit is an effective strategy to better achieve the desired learning outcomes and improve the student experience.

Looking to the Future of the Unit 

The unit will be taught for the second time starting in January with changes based on teaching staff observations and student feedback. The main changes include:

Introduction of a Number of Traditional Lectures. We plan to have six face-to-face lectures and six hands-on sessions to improve communication and more easily identify and support students who did not engage with online materials.

Additional Demonstrator Training. Some feedback indicated that demonstrators could do more, so we plan to give additional training prior to hands-on sessions.

Formative Assessment. We plan on a formative assessment within the hands-on sessions to gauge the knowledge acquired by students and provide feedback to students on their performance.

Additional Example Assessment Materials. Feedback highlighted some confusion regarding the MCQ and Practical test assessments. 

Summary Advice for Teaching Data Acquisition to Large Cohorts 

As with any new course, we experienced a steep learning curve and have a number of key points to take into the next year, which include:

  • We need to ensure demonstrators have the skills and knowledge of the labs they deliver. Larger cohorts diminish the lecturer’s ability to shape the learning and enhances the role of the demonstrator.
  • Ensure we communicate effectively if a unit is completely blended learning, as less traditional lectures make this more challenging.
  • Develop a strategy for ensuring those who lack comprehension still engage with the materials and get feedback. This highlights issues even if not they are not the consensus of student opinion and adapts to the environment you have created.
  • Utilise formative assessment to ensure everyone engages with materials and give feedback to students on performance so they know how they are doing.
  • The myDAQ is ideal for enabling hands-on teaching of practical data acquisition skills to large cohorts.

In conclusion, the blended learning approach with a flipped classroom can be beneficial to teaching practical data acquisition skills, but a whole unit taught in this manner may overwhelm students.

 

Author Information:
Dr. Andrew Weightman
University of Manchester

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