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A Mobile Robot to Enhance Engagement
and Learning for Two Engineering Courses

by Kam K. Leang
Mechanical Engineering


This report describes the preliminary results of a CTE Small Grant Award. The objective of the proposed project was to use a mobile robot as a teaching tool in two mechanical engineering courses, Process and System Dynamics (EGRM 315, offered spring semester) and Mechatronics (EGRM 410, offered fall semester). Specifically, the robot was used as a hands-on teaching tool/example to increase student engagement, and to reinforce learning through manipulation and visualization. This preliminary report describes (1) the results of the project and its impact on students taking the ENGR 315 Process and System Dynamics class (taught spring semester 2006) and (2) the initial results from the EGRM 410 Mechatronics class which is currently being offered this fall semester. A final report will follow that describes the overall impact of the project.

The Robot System

Using the allocated funds, Dr. Kam Leang purchased the X-80H mobile robot platform (see Fig. 1) in January 2006. The robot is equipped with a number of sensors and software. The robot can be controlled wirelessly by a laptop PC.

Meachnical Engineering Teaching Robot
Figure 1: The Mechanical Engineering Teaching Robot

Undergraduate Student Worker

An undergraduate mechanical engineering student (Greg Anderson) was hired to work part-time to assemble and program the robot for demonstrations and class activities. (A small percentage of the award was used to hire the student.) Greg was also enrolled in Kam’s spring course, ENGR 315.

This project gave Greg hands-on experience assembling and writing software. Such experience helped strengthen Greg’s understanding of engineering concepts, such as electronics and programming. Additionally, the project also enhanced Greg’s ability to solve problems and trouble shoot. The robot failed to work a number of times and Greg managed to figure out the issues on his own. After completing the project, Kam continued to support Greg by giving him a part-time position working in the lab to help on various research projects. For example, Greg designed a vibration isolation structure for Kam’s research with an atomic force microscope for nanofabrication.

ENGR 315 Process and System Dynamics Course

As described in the project plan (in the proposal), the robot shown in Fig. 1 was first to be used in the mechanical engineering course ENGR 315 Process and System Dynamics. The course was taught during spring 2006. The course focused on the modeling and control of mechanical, electrical, fluid, and thermal dynamic systems. One good example of a mechanical and electrical dynamic system is a robot. To give students hands-on experience, the robot was brought into the classroom for demonstration and used as an example. To link the concepts taught in ENGR 315, a project was assigned to design and implement a controller for DC motors. Robots use DC motors for locomotion and precise control of such motors is required to make robots useful. The objective of the assigned project was for students to design a control system to control the movement of an example DC motor, similar to the one used on the robot. Groups of four students worked together to design the control system. The project duration was three weeks. At the end of the project, an actual DC motor system was brought into the class and each group demonstrated their controller on the system. To make the project more exciting, there was a competition to see which group could design the best controller, one that would position the motor at 45-degrees in the shortest amount of time, while at the same time avoiding the possibility of saturating the voltage amplifiers that controlled the motor. Overall, the project was well receieved by the students.

Anecdotal notes Throughout the course, notes were taken to record the students attitudes and the impact of the robot. When the robot was debuted, the initial impressions were, “Wow, that is so cool!” and “Whoa, are we going to learn about how to make one of those robots?” It was quite obvious that the robot attracted students’ attention. During the project, students commented on how the project “brought everything they learned in class together.” By using an example that they were familiar with and one they could see, touch, and interact with, students appeared to be more motivated and excited about the course content. The following remarks were extracted from a survey given to students asking them to describe what they learned after completing the project:

“I feel that this project was very applicable. It utilized our ability to use the tools we’ve learned all year and apply them in a final design. From this project I have received a basic understanding of how PID controllers work and have developed an interest in them. I believe this project was good and can only get better.”

“The final group project for this class really helped me to understand how a system like this operates. I was able to gain a better understanding into the working of the controller that the system used and how the controller affected the system’s output.”

Survey Results At the beginning of the spring semeser, a survey was given to students to sample their initial understanding of course-related concepts. At the end of the semester, the same survey was given to acquire data for comparison. Figure 2 shows the before and after results. The comparision shows a significant improvement in the understanding of course-related concepts. The average class grade was approximately 75 percent.

Figure 2: Survey results from ENGR 315 Process and System Dynamics: before and after
Figure 2: Survey results from ENGR 315 Process and System Dynamics: before and after

EGRM 410 Mechatronics Course

The mechatronics course is being offered in the current fall semester and the robot system is being used as a demonstration as well as an example to enhance student engagement and learning. Mechatronics is the study of mechanical, electrical, and computer system integration. Robotic systems are excellent examples of a mechatronic system. Example problems based on the robot system will be assigned to students throughout the semester. And to further engage students and excite them about learning the course concepts, Kam has decided to assign a project where students will be required to work in teams to build a small autonomous robot to compete in a basketball competition at the end of the semester. This project directly links with the robot system that is used for class demonstration.

Outreach Demonstrations

In addition to classroom use, the robot was used at several Engineering Open House events at the VCU School of Engineering and for demonstrations outside of VCU, for example, The 29th Annual GRCTM High School Mathematics Conference at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (see attached conference report). The robot attracted the attention of students and parents.


This report described the initial outcomes of a CTE Small Grant Award at the Mechanical Engineering Department. The funds from the grant were used to purchase a small robot system to enhance student engagement and learning. The robot was implemented in the ENGR 315 course and it was observed that hands-on, real-world examples can have a significant impact on student attitudes and learning. The robot is currently being used in the EGRM410Mechatronics class and a final detailed report of the project will be provided at end of fall semester.

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