The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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McLaughlin Holds Second Annual Smart Car Extravaganza

On December 5, Professor David McLaughlin of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department held his second, annual, end-of-class demonstration of model, collision-avoiding  “smart cars,” as built by the students in his Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering course, ECE 361. The event is a sort of anti-demolition derby, in which 60 model smart cars, built in teams by the 193 mechanical and industrial engineering students in McLaughlin’s class, duck, dodge, and dart across the floor in a choreography of collision avoidance. The demonstration marks the culmination of a semester-long assignment to build model cars using Arduino processors, motors, and various sensors to control the vehicle movement. See video of last year’s demonstration.

“As you can see from the video, the event generates a lot of excitement amongst the participants,” as McLaughlin explained. “The cars all have collision-avoidance built into them, as a requirement for participating in this event, so they won’t be crashing into the walls. But they are prototypes, so some of them may end up bumping into each other.”

This course is intended to provide non-electrical engineering majors with the relevant electrical and electronic engineering concepts and device knowledge to work effectively in multi-disciplined design, development, and manufacturing teams.

McLaughlin will also provide fitting background music for the demo. Last year, for example, the sometimes madcap display opened with Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background. The ensuing floor show resembled a crossbreeding of bumper cars, a race car video game, and 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.

As McLaughlin noted, “Last year, we conducted a sort of pedagogical experiment with this course, 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. It was a successful experience.”

A group of students from last year’s class went on to publish a paper on the classroom experience, and in the paper they made a set of recommendations for improving the lab. This year, those students, along with four additional students from last year's class, are serving as the undergraduate TA’s for the class.

McLaughlin reports that “This year, the course gets a big boost from Aaron Annan, Brendan Hickey, Kenneth McCance, Caitlin McLain, Max Perham, Dan Rivers, Deanna Robear, and Chris Wise. They took the course last year, aced it, came up with some ideas for making the class better, published those ideas, and defended them in a conference, and now they are implementing theses very ideas in real time. They run the lab this year: they coach this year’s teams, they handle all the lab issues that come up, and they bring passion and a genuine interest in teaching to the post. They’re my dream team. And they set the standard for next year’s TA team, which I’m recruiting now.”

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, electro-magnetics, transformers, transducers, generators, and motors. (December 2014)