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grimhedenCreate Your Own Intelligence: The "Lab In Your Pocket"

Martin Grimheden
Department of Machine Design
Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)
June 2002

Inside all modern products are intelligent systems that control the product and interact with the user. Examples of this are the electronics in an elevator and the computers in a car that control the engine. When these subjects are taught to students there is an advantage if the students are allowed to build real products, and particularly if these products are flexible in a way that encourages innovative and creative work. My research explores the changes in students' learning styles that occur when they are given access to equipment that encourages experiments and enables them to build their own intelligent products, such as a TV's remote-control or an answering machine.

I develop methods and equipment for creative learning in mechatronics, a field combined of mechanical and electrical engineering with a focus on how to make mechanical products better and more useful with the help of electronics. The aim of my research is to explore the possibility of giving students access to resources and equipment with which to create mechatronic products. The "lab in your pocket" is a portable set of modules which resembles a briefcase-sized box of mechanical and electrical components, such as motors, sensors and microcontrollers, that the students can use at home to make experiments and to create a mechatronic product, such as a control system for an elevator. The sensors are used to sense information from the surroundings, like when a person presses a button to start a motor, or to ascertain whether the motor is running or not. The microcontroller can be seen as the "brain" of the modules, a component that is to be programmed by the students using an ordinary personal computer. To facilitate this learning, there is also a need to create home-exercises, projects, and tools for communicating with other students and supervisors.

My questions can be divided into two main parts. The first is related to the design of the equipment for the "lab in your pocket," meaning developing the actual modules to be put in the "box." To draw a parallel to ordinary course-development, this can be described as writing the course-literature; the "box" with the mechanical and electrical modules will have to act as a book in the eyes of the students to guide them through the subject of mechatronics, from a beginning to an advanced level. A typical "box" consists of a microcontroller-module that connects to a PC, switches and displays for communication between user and microcontroller, programs and manuals, and parts specific to an individual project, i.e. parts with which to build a remote control for a TV. To finish this project the student needs to connect all modules and to program the microcontroller, which requires knowledge of the subject of mechatronics as well as in other areas such as electronics, computer programming, etc.

My next and most important question to investigate is what will happen when the students get access to these resources and, in particular, how the learning process is affected. One of the goals of my research is to see whether the efforts made by the students will increase or decrease relative to a classical learning environment, and whether students' abilities to create innovative designs and to solve mechatronic problems are enhanced.

My hypothesis is that this access, in combination with exercises and projects that stimulate problem-solving activities, will lead to more active participation by students and give a greater understanding of mechatronics. The assessments of the activities are based on a comparative study that involves students studying the same subject but without the use of the "lab in your pocket" resources. These assessments are based on the students' own descriptions of their learning experience, gathered primarily in interviews, as well as independent analysis of the actual results of the course in terms of exam results and the mechatronic products designed.

Among the results of the research project is a quantitative study that shows a large increase in the amount of time spent by the students on experimenting, as well as tendencies to start the experimenting much earlier on in the course. In most cases, the students made their first experiment on the first day of the course. I have also found interesting tendencies with several students where they continue to do other experiments after fulfilling the course demands, as well as students creating their own experiments not covered in the course, which all points toward a change in the student's attitude towards learning.