Back in your college days, if your instructor said, “Let’s learn about pulse-width modulation control theory; turn to page 1,453 in your textbook,” you could do it, and you would probably learn the theory. But what if your instructor said, “Let’s learn about pulse-width modulation theory by moving a robot from one end of this maze to the other as fast as possible.” Which option would you choose?
I’d choose robots and mazes any day. And that’s just what I did. Two years ago, I helped Texas Instruments develop a robotics kit series for the university classroom called the TI Robotics System Learning Kit (TI-RSLK), aimed to teach Embedded Systems and Applications, an undergraduate course common in most electrical and computer engineering curricula.
The goal of the TI-RSLK learning kit is to provide a hands-on experience while developing proficiency in integrating the hardware and software components that make up any electronic system.
While in the process of developing the kit, I wondered if it would be possible to do a better job of explaining complex systems and engineering concepts in a way that could make students excited to learn and explore – perhaps even help them connect theories learned in the classroom to practical experiences. Could I do it in a fun and interactive way?
The latest kit comes with the SimpleLink™ MSP432P401R microcontroller LaunchPad™ development kit, line infrared and bump sensors, a TI-RSLK chassis board, a free comprehensive curriculum broken down into 20 modules (including startup codes, hands-on activities and labs) and more.
With the TI-RSLK, students learn basic engineering concepts by building and then testing a robot that can solve complex tasks or challenges – anything from exploring a maze (Figure 1), to racing autonomously, to finding an object, navigating through an obstacle or following a line. In addition, students can explore more advanced concepts such as understanding Wi-Fi® communication protocols while working through challenges that include robot-to-robot communication, or controlling the robot through Wi-Fi and even Bluetooth®.
Figure 1: An engineering student tests the TI-RSLK in a maze (Source: Texas Instruments)
The TI University team had the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with Jon Valvano, a longtime embedded systems educator at the University of Texas, to develop the kit and curriculum. After getting to know him, I learned that he certainly has a lot of passion in wanting to improve students’ learning skills, and spends many hours outside the classroom helping students solve problems. Moreover, he teaches his class by using standard industry software and hardware tools, providing a relevant learning path to system integration. The kind of collaboration between Jon Valvano and his students makes for effective education, and hopefully better engineers for the world.
Effective system integration and “system thinking” are important while solving problems in the engineering industry. The choices engineers make during hardware and software selection and design will ultimately affect the effectiveness of their solutions. There’s one fundamental skill that today’s high-tech employees need, regardless of job function: the ability to see an entire problem, break it down and solve it. For engineers and the engineering process, what were once stand-alone elements of the design cycle – technologies, functions and designers – are now interdisciplinary, involving development teams that are expected to deliver highly sophisticated products. And in order to do this, engineers must be systems thinkers who can understand complex engineering concepts across multiple disciplines and products to solve multifaceted design problems.
The educational approach used in the TI-RSLK enables students to learn the “whys” of engineering, instead of just learning the “hows.” This approach helps students understand what happens when the robot doesn’t work, for example, including how to go through the debugging process to eliminate all of the possible reasons why. What the TI University team sees occurring in today’s classrooms is students stalling in their learning or getting frustrated because their code breaks or their solution doesn’t work – and they don’t know how to fix it. So they give up and move on to things they do understand … or worse, if they are early in their engineering career, they give up engineering altogether.
I’ve seen firsthand how robots keep students engaged but also spur their creativity. This past summer, TI let its interns test out the TI-RSLK through a mini-competition. Students could find solutions to make their robots complete a maze challenge either more quickly or with more accuracy, or they could enter a “creative” category to submit robots with fun applications. My personal favorite was the project that used the TI-RSLK to make a mobile trash-can game. The robot kept score as you made shots into the can, while roaming around for an added challenge. I love knowing that students learned foundational engineering concepts while having fun creating their own unique application.
Systems thinking and hands-on learning are critical to educating future engineers. When you combine this thinking with a learning experience that involves relevant education, developed in collaboration with both industry experts and academia, it’s a win-win for everyone. Even more exciting is that once students understand how to use practical knowledge along with their creativity and imagination to find solutions to today’s engineering problems, the possibilities of what they can do is endless.
Ayesha Mayhugh supports Product Strategy for the TI University program. Prior to this role, she led the Industrial Interface business unit within TI’s Analog businesses. Ayesha earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical engineering from the University of Bombay and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University.