The engineering discipline at Aarhus University is expanding with a growing student population and marked expansion of research and development activities. The Aarhus University School of Engineering is united in a common goal of ensuring a clear correlation between societal investment in the engineering discipline and the contribution of the engineering discipline to a stronger Danish economy.
Leaving the Old-School Behind
Our main challenge, like any university that has been around for long enough, was working with decades-old equipment. Both students and professors struggled using old analogue measurement instruments from several different manufacturers with limited or no ability for digital data acquisition. Most students logged data manually on paper, making the synchronization and correlation of measurements and the observation of dynamic behavior overwhelmingly difficult. Measurement automation was impossible and experimenting with complex robotic systems seemed hopeless.
Didactics and Pedagogy Hand-in-Hand with Technology
The educational system is changing. Lectures have been the dominant teaching method for a long time, but are in the decline. Students can easily ‘tune-out’ when just listening and taking notes. Instead students engage more with the material using peer teaching and hands-on projects that relate theory to practice.
When working with the material, students may achieve “flow,” a state of mind where an activity completely captures the student’s attention, which creates a strong sense of meaning and satisfaction. According to Kolb’s learning cycle, we can employ experiential learning to achieve this state of flow, starting with a short 10-15-minute lecture as the concrete experience. We follow this with a reflective observation and abstract conceptualization during a hands-on session using the concrete experience to get a device to work. A great feature of hands-on learning is the immediate feedback of a system working or not working that can lead to a revised understanding. This process takes us to the next stage of active experimentation and restarting the learning cycle to develop a learning atmosphere that is engaging, fun, and fast paced.
Sensor and actuator devices have become very cheap due to a growth in the consumer market for hobby electronics, which might seemingly make Arduino an obvious choice, but we wanted to evaluate more industrially relevant options. We considered DAQ equipment from HP and Agilent; PLC platforms from Allen Bradley, Beckhoff, and Siemens; and the NI hardware platform.
Zoom In on Your Opportunities
We needed a harmonized system that could handle all our needs for robotics, automation, and data acquisition. Our students are mechanical engineers and prefer a high-level programming language that removes the focus on the syntax and leads to accelerated innovation and discovery. As such, LabVIEW software, myDAQ measurement devices, and myRIO embedded controllers became an obvious choice for us.
LabVIEW, a high-level graphical programming language, is so approachable and intuitive that dyslexic and letter-blind students can program with LabVIEW comfortably. Hands-on teaching is not only available in small classes of 20 students. The intuitive nature of myDAQ and myRIO, along with pre-built experiments called MiniSystems built by NI partners, helped us extend hands-on teaching to classes with up to 100 students. Of course, such large classes do require a teaching assistant to keep the flow going.
To implement this change, the teacher must take ownership of the course to drive it toward success. We recommend schools around the world to take a look at all the courseware material provided by NI and its partners to gain a strong foundation for the practical sessions as well as inspiration for your courses. For example, we found the NI myRIO Project Essentials Guide, written by professor Ed Doering, especially inspiring and available for free on ni.com.
Students started achieving incredible results after just one year, and we started competing at international competitions with success. The Aarhus University School of Engineering can now compete with universities on an international level, which goes far beyond our expectations.
Students have fun and are motivated to work after class. Even in class they often forget to take a break after several hours of work. Course evaluation comments range from, “myRIO is pure gold,” to, “I’ve never learned this much before.” The most common criticism for the course is that the students wish it was longer. They would be happy spend more hours working on projects.
In the three years since inception, students have built an impressive range of advanced robots using myRIO and LabVIEW, including robot butlers, indoor quadcopter drones, autonomous sailing robots, mechatronic weed removers for driveways, autonomous fire extinguisher robots, science museum exhibitions, autonomous minefield detectors, and search and rescue robots, to name just a few.
We especially want to highlight the underwater robotics team for using myRIO to build and deploy the Deep Freeze ROV, which is an aquatic robot that studies the algae that grows beneath the ice covered Arctic Ocean. This team became one of the top three finalists in the NI Global Student Design Showcase, beating top tier universities all around the world. Another team competing at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Labcame fifth out of 600 competing teams worldwide in the underwater robotics competition hosted by MATE, and won the Inspiration for Future Engineers award.
We are thrilled that our new innovative approach to hands-on learning, based on the NI platform, is opening incredible opportunities and awards for our students. We believe that this is just the beginning.
Read more about the Deep Freeze ROV: An Underwater Robot for Arctic Research.
Claus Melvad, Associate Professor
Aarhus University School of Engineering
Inge Lehmannsgade 10
Denmark 8000 Aarhus C
Tel: +45 2324 4761