Design and Innovation Using AutoCAD, 3D Printing, and Arduino: Curricular Enhancement for 21st Century Engineers and Inventors (Mellon Project Report)

Our digital pedagogy project integrated AutoCAD, 3D printing, and Arduino technologies in courses for both physics pre-engineering majors and non-science majors. The central pedagogical approach was project-based learning using creative technology. Students were actively engaged in the design, construction, and testing of innovative products and solutions: Smartphone Sound Amplifier (RooBoost), a comfortable handle for cold 12-ounce aluminum cans (Can-dle), and an Infrared Touch Surface. This initial use of 3D Printing and Arduinos in our curriculum may serve as a precursor for a broader maker space at Austin College.

Digital Design for Engineering Students

PHY 281, Statics and Engineering Design, was offered for the first time in Fall 2016. In this course, pre-engineering students designed a small bridge using AutoCAD software, built the bridge with popsicle sticks, and tested the prototype under physical stress and strain. This introductory design process prepared them for the main event: designing their own product to solve a real-world problem. Using an iterative design process, students modeled their product in AutoCAD and produced prototypes using the Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer. 

Students showcased their designs to the campus community in a Demo Day at the end of the semester.   Their products— RooBoost, Can-dle, KangaBroo, and The Sauce Boss—were highlighted in the Austin College Digital Pedagogy blog post “Roo Products: 3D Design and Printing in Pre-Engineering Physics.” They also shared their products recently at the Austin College Scholarship Conference.

This course helps fill a void in our pre-engineering program: a need for authentic, meaningful engineering design applications. Roughly one third of our physics majors pursue a career in engineering. Although many of our physics courses have an applied focus, Statics and Engineering Design is the first course at Austin College to be designed specifically for engineers.

Inventions with Arduino for Non-Science Majors

In the Jan Term course Arduino Microcontrollers, non-science major students used the C++ computer language to program Arduino microcontrollers. An Arduino consists of a programmable circuit board (called a microcontroller) and software that runs on an external computer that is used to control the microcontroller. The circuit board can interact with other electronic circuits and make LEDs light up, motors turn, piezo motors buzz, LCDs display text, and so on.

No prior experience was necessary. The January term students built eight projects involving Arduinos and demonstrated them to visitors outside the Austin College cafeteria in late January. The projects were highlighted in our recent blog post, “Physics and Fun in JanTerm.”

By teaching Arduino Microcontrollers this Jan Term, we were able to see where a similar regular-semester course may fit into our future offerings. The students had a variety of backgrounds: computer science majors who had programming experience, physics majors who were familiar with electrical circuits, and students with a general interest in Arduinos. Working in teams, they were able to take advantage of their complementary skills. We plan to incorporate Arduino activities in our PHY 230 Electronics course (an elective for majors and minors). Some computer science students showed an interest in taking Electronics in the future. A separate course for non-science majors will still need to be made available, perhaps in Jan Term.  

Long Term Plans—Maker Space

Implementation of these technologies in the classroom—along with an inquiry-based pedagogical approach in which students can pursue their own interests—has reinforced for us the need for a maker space at Austin College. Maker spaces at other universities often include CAD software, 3D printers, and Arduino labs. Our pilot study here could serve as the springboard for a future maker space on campus.

For example, two of the three students that invented the RooBoost have continued their product design in an Austin College course called Product Lab. In this entrepreneurial course, students are learning how to pitch their idea, raise money through crowdfunding, and launch their product rapidly. Our engineering students would not have taken advantage of the Product Lab opportunity without the Statics and Engineering Design experience. The availability of AutoCAD and 3D Printing opened new doors for them.  

A campus-wide maker space would provide exciting opportunities for even more of our students. We envision a space in which students, regardless of major, could design and innovate. Perhaps they have already taken a course in a specific area such as engineering, art, or computer science. Or perhaps students have developed an idea on their own, completely outside of the normal curriculum. Recently, computer science students have expressed an interest in developing a robotics club. The maker space would allow them to tap into their inventive spirit.

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