The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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ECE 361 Students Take Their Smart Cars on a Wild Ride

On December 6 in the Campus Center Auditorium, 170 junior and senior students in the ECE 361 Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering course showed off some 40 model “smart cars” they had designed during the course as collision-avoiding vehicles. This course is intended to provide non-electrical engineering majors, in this case students from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, with the relevant electrical and electronic engineering concepts and device knowledge to work effectively in multi-disciplined design, development, and manufacturing teams. View You Tube video:

When the demonstration actually began with a bang, not a whimper, some 20 cars were turned loose at once in the center of the auditorium, while a circle of exuberant students cheered each non-collision, near miss, and pileup with equal gusto. They all took their cue from MIE Professor James Rinderle to “Make an a-harmonic noise that will wake the dead!”

As Professor David McLaughlin, who taught the ECE 361 course, said about the assignment, “We have been conducting a sort of pedagogical experiment with that class, in which the junior and senior-level mechanical and industrial engineering students work in teams to build electronic cars, while they simultaneously learn the fundamentals of electrical engineering.”

This demo for ECE 361 was a well-planned climax for the course, which covers basic electric-circuit elements and laws. That includes first- and second-order circuits, AC circuit analysis, systems concepts, diodes, bipolar junction transistors, field-effect transistors, digital logic, transistor amplifiers, electromagnetics, transformers, transducers, generators, and motors.

McLaughlin developed the smart car project last summer with the help of two local K-12 teachers participating in the Research Experience for Teachers. The teachers – Tania Cezar of Fuller Middle School in Framingham and Nick Harrison from Amherst Regional Middle School – worked with McLaughlin to help him develop Labs for ECE 361.

As McLaughlin said about the collaborative effort, “Local mechanical engineer Mike Jacques worked with teachers Tanea Cezar and Nick Harrison to accomplish the prototype this past summer.”

As a result of this summer collaboration, the 170 MIE students received their semester-long assignment to build model cars using Arduino processors and sensors to control the vehicle movement. Jacques was an ever-present experienced hand who also provided coaching and all manner of help and support throughout.

“I'd like to add a mention of Izzy Masiunas, my TA who ran the lab portion of the course and who maintained a drop-in ‘lab clinic’ in the MIE Innovation Lab/Maker Space,” said McLaughlin. “She coached all the student teams all through the semester.” 

When the students reached the auditorium on December 6, the pre-event preparation proved almost as interesting as the actual demo. A kaleidoscope of activities took place as students made last-minute adjustments to their cars, runaway vehicles crisscrossed the auditorium floor, inventors chased their careening machines, and good Samaritans stuck out their legs to make goalie-style saves on stray models. Meanwhile, there were many comments of the “Well, it kind of works” variety.

Rinderle announced the moment of truth by praising the MIE students for a long semester of good work and a job well done in completing the crash-test autos. “I congratulate you on embracing the project,” he said, “and doing so much work.”

The demonstration turned out to be a wild ride, which was why it opened with Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background. The ensuing floor show resembled a crossbreeding of bumper cars, a demolition derby, and a variation on dodge ball. Most of the cars worked with fine precision, stopping within a few inches of any other cars they encountered. But a few created chaos by smashing into anything and everything.

The feeling at the demonstration was that the learning experience was just as valuable for the students whose cars failed as it was for those whose vehicles succeeded in operating with collision-proof performance. A good time was had by all, and, among many other lessons, the demonstration proved that ECE 361 was achieving its goal of teaching MIE students the fine fundamentals of electrical engineering. (December 2013)