Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Thayer Exports New Vehicle for Active Learning

by Kristen Senz
June 2018 • CoolStuff

Professor Laura Ray is distributing dozens of small driverless cars built at Thayer School to professors across the country as part of a three-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, on how to successfully incorporate active-learning exercises into math-heavy courses, such as control theory and systems.

Ray developed her fleet of "Fidget Cars" as a low-cost way to demonstrate core concepts in control theory. Each Fidget Car is controlled with analog electronics and can be used in a series of experiments, each under 20 minutes. The car, which runs on two 12V batteries, has an infrared sensor that provides a voltage inversely proportional to distance from a target, such as a board, placed in front of it. As the target moves, students use a smartphone camera to record and measure the car’s response, then upload the data using software that enables manipulation and analysis.

As student teams work with Fidget Cars, they see how the abstract math from lectures translates in the real world. “Basically, it’s all feedback,” Ray says. “It looks complicated, but it really isn’t.”

Fidget car diagram
Professor Ray developed the "Fidget Car" as a low-cost way to demonstrate core concepts in control theory and help students see how the abstract math translates in the real world.

Research suggests collaborative learning increases student engagement, particularly among women, says Ray. “I think students, especially women, like to work together and they like that interaction,” she says. “It’s a way to level the playing field.”

In 2017, Ray organized a workshop at Thayer for 12 engineering educators from institutions across the United States and one in Ghana to develop a series of Fidget Car activities for teaching control theory. Now these educators are trying to implement the activities into tight curriculums. “Many instructors in the group are struggling with how to do it, because they have so much to do,” says Ray. “One instructor made it optional for students, so not everyone showed up, but those that did were enthusiastic.”

Ray says that the group, which is documenting what works and what doesn’t, might find the “flipped classroom” model useful. In this approach, professors make their lectures into videos that students watch before class, freeing up class time for hands-on activities. They might also conclude block scheduling or new course preparations facilitate implementation.

Ray’s Fidget Car work stems from her longtime interest in how to effectively teach students who come into class with varying degrees of prior exposure to engineering. “Except for those who have gone through FIRST Robotics, there are very few who tinker, and there’s a gap between those who have tinkered and those who haven’t,” she says. “We don’t want to exclude the ones who haven’t. We want them to be able to major in engineering, too.”

Ray plans to start using Fidget Cars in her control theory class next spring. Looking further ahead, she envisions developing novel hands-on activities for other courses as well.

Tags: complex systems, faculty, innovation, STEM

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