Engineering students learn with Legos

2/1/2007 8:00:00 AM

"Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I'll remember, but involve me and I'll understand," says Eric Wang, an associate mechanical engineering professor, as he begins his ME 151 class, "Engineering with Lego Bricks."

Wang said he starts with this ancient Chinese proverb to emphasize how he expects to teach his class. Students do not learn from textbooks or intricate lectures in the course — co-taught with Jeff LaCombe, associate materials science and engineering professor and graduate assistant Ann-Marie Vollstedt. Instead students learn by building, programming and competing.

"Students begin programming robots on the first day of class," Wang says. "They begin building their own with Legos before the second class."

Throughout the semester, students build and program Lego robots for eight different competitions. The first seven competitions introduce specific skills that will all become useful for the final Lego competition. Some of these skills include the ability to program a robot to follow the wall, find the light and attack other robots. Unlike "BattleBots" on television, these robots are not remote controlled. Instead, the robots are completely programmed before the start of each competition.

Wang says that the skills required for building and programming Lego robots are valuable in any field of engineering including computer programming, design and creative thinking. Building and programming robots also teaches valuable lessons in trial and error, he says.

"They build it and try it, and when it doesn't work, they build it again," Wang says. "It never works right the first time around."

Students in Wang's class receive their grade based on many different components. In order to be considered for an A, students must earn eight skill badges in basic programming, basic inventor, basic investigator, structures, tasks, containers, events and advanced structures. Each competition is also graded by rank.

"First place gets an A, second place gets an A-, etcetera," Wang says.

 Although many of the competitions have a specific objective, Wang points out that there are many different ways to win. For example, in most competitions you can win by causing another team's robot to crash, he says.

"We encourage [students] to break the rules as much as possible," Wang says.

Students in Wang's "Lego" class look forward to having fun while they learn basic engineering skills.

"I took this class because I want to deal with robots and have fun," says Damon Demetropolis, a junior mechanical engineering major. "I heard it is going to be a lot of fun."

Students who are interested in taking an "Engineering with Lego Bricks" class can visit the College of Engineering website or the COE office in Room 132 of Scrugham Engineering and Mines. 


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