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M. Ben Ghalia

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UNITED STATES)
Several engineering programs in various academic institutions have developed introductory courses for their entering freshman students. These courses provide a first introduction to the field of engineering and often help students make better informed decisions whether or not to pursue an engineering degree. There have been several approaches to introduce freshman students to engineering. Most of the reported successful ones involve hands-on laboratory activities and project-based learning.

This paper describes a robotic-based project that is offered in a freshman introduction course which is required in the Bachelor of Science of Electrical Engineering degree plan at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The original scope of the course was to introduce freshman students to the field of electrical engineering and provide basic hands-on laboratory experiences in electric circuits, digital circuits, and MATLAB programming. The curriculum of the course has been enhanced to include a meaningful project-based learning experience that helps to provide a better insight into the different technical engineering areas (such electronics, control systems, microprocessors, programming, etc.) that are instrumental in the design and operations of robotic systems.

The two main goals of introducing a challenging project in the freshman course are:
(i) to allow students to experience working on a real engineering problem, and
(ii) to help them enhance their problem solving skills.

The project challenges students to develop a software application for a wheeled mobile robot. The challenge is presented to students as follows: "You are hired by Smart Highway Corporation (SHC) to join a team of engineers who are working on developing prototypes of the next generation vehicles with auto-navigation capabilities. Your assignment is to develop a proof of concept where you will develop a software application for the robot to autonomously navigate a mock-urban course with traffic obstacles." The majority of the freshman students enrolled in this course have not taken their first course in C/C++ programming. This is why a learning phase is developed where students are guided through a series of demonstrations of code examples that solve basic tasks, such as navigation by following a black line. Students are also shown how to read and understand the programs in the studied examples. A series of mini-challenges were introduced in the second phase of the project. In this phase, students learn how to write and test short programs that allow a robot to stop at course junctions and make left and right turns. The third phase of the project is solve the navigation challenge by designing a program that allows the robot to autonomously navigate through a mock-urban course with traffic obstacles. Through proper guidance and teamwork, several student teams were successful in solving the complete challenge.

This paper describes the planning of the robotic challenge project. It also discusses students' achievements, interest and enthusiasm about the design challenge, and their overall perception of the engineering profession upon completion of the project. To situate this paper within the context of existing literature, a number of important freshman year initiatives undertaken by various electrical engineering programs are reviewed and discussed.