BEAVERTON, Ore. - An innovative program has added hands-on creativity, teamwork and the excitement of learning to the education of engineering students at Oregon State University.
This one-of-a-kind program, featuring a robotic platform for learning, will soon be expanded with the aid of a $500,000 donation announced today by Tektronix, Inc., a Beaverton, Ore., test, measurement and monitoring company.
The program, to be called TekBots, uses robots to help students integrate their classroom instruction into a tangible device that continually evolves as their engineering skills become more sophisticated. It spurs student interest and creativity, educators say.
The concept is also another important step forward in the continuing drive to improve engineering education at OSU, make the college one of the top 25 programs nationally and significantly increase the number of engineering graduates who will help drive the Oregon economy.
"Tektronix and OSU have a long history of engineering cooperation," said Tektronix CEO Rick Wills. "The TekBots program is the latest example of a partnership to strengthen the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at OSU. We see this as a commitment to develop quality engineering graduates well-schooled in fundamentals and hands-on engineering, and as a means of supporting critical higher education initiatives statewide."
University educators believe that this type of program will translate into more entrepreneurial and team-oriented students who make a significant impact in the field. The needs are immediate. Oregon is committed to doubling the number of engineering degrees that it awards, which will be essential to growth in many of the high technology and other industries that are the economic future of the state.
"Interesting and innovative programs like this are a real help to students who want to be engineers," said Wojtek Kolodziej, an OSU professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Building robots helps students have fun, be creative, do things with their hands and retain their excitement about engineering. It gives them positive encouragement that can be very important."
With the support of the Tektronix grant, every student in the OSU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will build a robot as a freshman and then improve it over the years as they learn new skills and are exposed to different engineering disciplines.
At first, OSU educators say, the robots are pretty basic machines that can move and respond to rudimentary controls. But within a few years under the new program, the OSU robots incorporate more advanced and fun features.
"The first robot I built can go forward, backward, beep and be maneuvered by a remote control," said Celia Hung, a Stayton, Ore., sophomore in electrical engineering.
"But even that basic robot gave me a lot of hands-on experience and helped develop assembly skills," Hung said. "In the future I might add a digital logic base to my robot. I'm still exploring career options in electronics, and this type of work will help me learn about different fields and eventually identify my career interests."
Part of the key to the program will be taking the skills students learn in class and seeing how they can be applied to create working systems in the real world. A junior student in a signals and systems course, for instance, could add a digital signal processor to their robot that allows it to navigate an obstacle course. A senior-level robot might be able to perform remote tasks through Internet controls.
And one OSU student has turned his robot into a robotic hovercraft.
Innovations such as this, educators say, highlight the way that engineering education has evolved in recent years. Students are encouraged to be more creative, develop skills and apply what they learn. One of OSU's institutional goals is to provide a compelling learning experience for every student, and nowhere is this trend more evident than in the engineering curriculum.
"This program gets students excited about learning and teaches them to apply the abstract concepts in a real application," said Terri Fiez, professor and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "The concepts from seemingly unrelated classes are connected and the transition from school to work will be seamless.
"But even more important than that is the level of real enthusiasm that the program seems to generate in students," Fiez said. "What starts out as a basic robot can become quite sophisticated over the years, as students work on it, share their ideas with friends, see how something they learned can become the next feature on their robot. They often can't wait to get to work on it. There's a thrill of creation that you just can't capture in a traditional classroom setting."
OSU has Oregon's largest and most comprehensive educational program in engineering, with about 125 faculty members in eight departments: Bioengineering; Chemical; Civil, Construction and Environmental; Electrical and Computer; Industrial and Manufacturing; Mechanical; Nuclear Engineering; and Computer Science. It enrolls about 3,200 students each year and has the highest production of engineering graduate degrees in Oregon.
Tektronix, Inc. is a technology company focused on providing test, measurement and monitoring solutions to enable and sustain the explosive growth of global communications networks and Internet technologies. Headquartered in Beaverton, Tektronix also maintains operations in 25 other countries. Founded in 1946, the company's measurement business had revenues of $1.050 billion in fiscal 2000.