CORVALLIS, Ore. - For several years now, engineering students at Oregon State University have been using unusual, hands-on learning tools - from LEGO vehicles outfitted with vision software to personal robots that students build from scratch - to better grasp engineering concepts, gain invaluable job skills, and have a little fun along the learning curve.

These tools, part of the ongoing drive to improve engineering education at OSU and build the college into one of the top 25 programs nationally, appear to be working, educators say. One of the first pilot programs, TekBots, has been so successful that Tektronix, the company that originally funded it in 2001, has just pledged to help fund the program for the next five years.

Research clearly shows that hands-on learning beats traditional blackboard lectures, which is the reason LEGO® MindStorms kits, OSU-developed Platforms for Learning, and other roll-up-your-sleeves learning tools are key curriculum components for the College of Engineering.

These innovative, hands-on learning tools are helping the college recruit and retain engineering students by making classes more engaging, more effective and more fun, educators say.

Mike Quinn, a professor of computer science, incorporates LEGOs into the freshmen orientation class for computer science majors. Students build LEGO robots that answer challenges ranging from ascending a hill and stopping at the peak, to sorting ping-pong balls by color. This approach allows students to bring their programming skills into a concrete scenario and learn the practical ramifications of software's marriage to its housing.

"If the software is high-quality, but the hardware is unreliable, you still don't have a usable machine," Quinn said. "So students have to be thinking about the larger system, not just the software."

The primary goal is to teach students skills in teamwork, communication and responsibility, Quinn said.

OSU students of chemical engineering also use LEGO kits in their freshman sequence - engineering robots to collect data that can then be analyzed. Bioengineering students once built a robot to "operate" on a gelatin "brain" and remove a grape "tumor," said associate professor Skip Rochefort, who praised the system for its feedback-intensive "just-in-time learning process."

"Platforms for Learning," a program created at the OSU College of Engineering, takes this concept even further, connecting learning between individual courses and over years.

The School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science employs TekBots, one of many Platforms for Learning under development at OSU, to prepare students for the real-world, team-oriented work environments that await them after graduation.

Students purchase their own TekBot, a robotic mechanical base in their freshman year, then proceed to add features and functionality to the TekBot as they learn new concepts in as many as nine courses throughout their undergraduate career.

"You learn the basics, apply them to a real world experience on a TekBot, and in later classes you use what you already know as a foundation for more complex problems," said John Patrick Zbylut, a junior studying computer engineering at OSU.

Don Heer, research and development coordinator in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science said TekBots distinguishes OSU from other engineering programs because it spans years of study.

"Most other schools will have a course in robotics; very few will have a course in electrical circuits and use a robot to teach it; and none will use the same robot to connect four years of classes," he said.

This is the first year that every electrical and computer engineering senior at OSU has had four years of TekBots-related instruction, Heer said. College officials have observed a substantial increase in the average quality of the students' senior projects, due in part to the "hands-on familiarity" with the concepts gained through their work with TekBots. Heer attributes part of the program's success to the students' personal investment in their robots and how they help further develop the TekBots platform.

Other Platforms for Learning in place at the college range from DataLoggers, a program in development aimed at general engineering students, to Mechatronics, a platform used in the mechanical engineering curriculum.

The Mechatronics platform is a sibling of TekBots, but allows mechanical engineering students to focus on mechanical design rather than electronic theory.

One Mechatronics course integrates engineering theory, building small systems, and creating an independent student-chosen project. In the mechanical engineering orientation class, students use Mechatronics platform to create "smart vehicles" that can effectively navigate a maze-like course.

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Mike Quinn, 541-737-5572