Bring Research to Learning

Learning through doing is a natural process . An infant  learns to speak after hearing sounds. Children learn to write after they  read words and pictures.   There is no substitute for students to take on an idea, reduce it into engineering specifications, research the state of art, and then prove their points with artifacts made by their own hands. It is an opportunity for teachers to personalize the learning experiences for students. It is a great opportunity for teachers to show that research is useful, cool, and useful. Research is IN.

Over the last 12 years, Dr. Liu has marshaled an effort to envoke more research oriented problem solving through hands on learning. Instead of requiring students to master a set of abstract knowledge in the textbook, examinations and assignments, the class uses vendor datasheets and live design cases as the primary technical sources. Lectures are tightly synchronized with lab assignments. Students are required to complete a modest number of lab assignments thoroughly, and then they are required to develop their own final project. Based on the notion of “team goal, individual accountability”, students are encouraged to take calculated risks in their project goals. Overall, this lab driven curriculum is highly successful, and several important lessons can be drawn from this exercise.

  • Holistic Learning – Target systems, technical data sources, development tools and processes are all important aspects.
  • Progressive goals – Start with rigorous learning of core knowledge (system principles, basic development tools, etc.) Students can effectively use what they learn to attack advanced topics.
  • Full system design cycle – Planning, development, team work, live demonstration.
  • Accumulate experiences – Both good and bad (past) projects are useful for learning. Video clips, reports, prototypes, etc are much more effective than volume of book pages, or loads of papers for undergraduate students.
  • Make research approachable – Lead students to design options that they can understand. Allow them to fail (with calculated risks) but help them to adapt to cope and adapt to miscalculated steps.

Some selected projects are illustrated here. All but one were done by senior students within 1-2 months.

    • Computational Fluid Dynamics modelling(Fall 2009)

    • Rubiks Cube Solver (Spring 2007) video clip


      Designed By: Chris Boyce, David Chaszar, Michael Stewart, Doug Toney

      Six stepper motors interfaced to the EB63 board running Mmlite OS to solve the Rubiks cube puzzle. A Rubiks solver from was ported to solve the puzzle from a random initial state, which is manually fed to the solver. 

    • Aggie Orb (Fall 2006) video clip


      Designed By: Sarah Berry, Mikhail Kisin, Gabe Knezek

      A 3D holographic display system made from scratch. The LEDs are controlled by a microcontroller, which receives power and commands via the slipring. A magnetic position sensor detects the ring to synchronize the rotational angle with lighting of LEDs. 

    • Robotic Marionette: two generations

      This is a large scale project which combined hardware, software, mechanical designs, and art. Follow the link for details.
  • Etch-A-Sketch

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    Two stepper motors mounted on the knobs of the Etch-A-Sketch are controlled by software to etch a sketch. The PC user interface supports both drawing and typed texts. 
    • Raster Laser Display

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      A laser pointer mounted on a stepper motor and a mirror on another stepper motor were able to quickly draw simple objects such as squares and text in two dimensions on a wall. The prototype was controlled using drivers and software running on the Atmel EB63. 
    • RTB CAR

      The RTB Car is a toy car equipped with a sonar range finder. The Atmel EB63 uses the sonar reading to calculate its distance to obstacles. The controller stops the car when an obstacle becomes closer than a threshold. 


      PHYTANIC is an I2C network built using the Atmel EB63s, I2C controller chips, and handmade cables. A link layer networking protocol was developed and tested for the network. 
    • Air Banner (Spring 2003)


      Designed By: Richard Neil Pittman, Robert Bean

      A PIC microcontroller and an array of LED embedded into a spinning arm produces this elegant air banner. The position of the spanning arm is sensed for the PIC to turn on/off LEDs at different positions. The ground is carried by the shaft of the motor and the VCC by a washer that rubs on a contact under the arm. A wash and contact is also used for serial communication between PIC and PC to change the text being displayed while the arm is spinning. 

  • Sign Language Glove (Spring 2003)


    Designed By: Nathaniel Lynch, Daniel Trimmell

    Two golf gloves sewed with flexible resistors to measure bending of the knuckles. The measurements were digitized and then compared with a template matching model run on the eb63 board to estimate the hand gesture.

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