Learn Engineering by Building Robots

Posted 21 Apr 2003 at 14:00 UTC by steve Share This

Oregon State University has made a fundamental change in the way they teach engineering. They call their new program Tekbots. Each new engineering student builds a robot throughout their education. The development of the student's robot is tied directly to engineering classes and even weekly lecture topics. With each phase of development the robots are required to complete more challenging tasks. An Albany Democrat Herald article describes the Tekbots program and its success to date.

It's about time, posted 21 Apr 2003 at 18:22 UTC by earlwb » (Master)

It's about time although a few years late for this guy. I remember a while back at a company I had worked for, the VP of R&D fired a newly graduated engineer because he didn't know where pin one was on a IC DIP package.

I still wonder how some guys became EE's when they didn't know how to solder and wire up circuits on breadboards. Yup, the VP fired that one too.

Nope it wasn't me, I was too busy building and programming stuff for the company at the time.

I had the same experience, posted 21 Apr 2003 at 19:43 UTC by jeffkoenig » (Master)

Several years ago, I hired a freshly graduated EE. He was a nice fellow, and a pretty good programmer. However, he lied about his hardware experience, which is was what he was hired for.

I asked him to breadboard a simple circuit, and it was obvious that he didn't know how a breadboard's conductors were arranged. He put a DIP in the breadboard so that each row shorted out.

Several days later, I asked him to do some V/I curves on a circuit, and he came back with all the currents in the femto amp range. I told him he had an open circuit - he should have expected a few hundred milliamps. He was recording the lowest digit on the ammeter, which was noise.

I had him solder some wires to a DB-25 (Yes, I know, properly it is a DE connector) and he soldered the wires to the pins, not the solder cups. I kid you not.

Finally, a technician came into my office laughing his head off. He told me that the new guy was trying to determine the amount of current flowing into a circuit by measuring the voltage drop across about one centimeter of wire that was sourcing the circuit. This was after I had explained how to do it properly.

Needless to say, he had the honor of being the first guy I ever had to fire.

Now, how could this have happened? How did the guy graduate without ANY actual bench experience? I'm not sure, but I remember the first real bench class that I took in college. My two lab partners were very experienced technicians from TI. The first several lab sessions got finished in a hurry by them, and they would leave the math, graphs, and write-up to me. It was several weeks before I touched the oscilloscope. I had to assert myself and MAKE them let me use the equipment.

However, I can't see how anyone can get through four or five years of classes, and at least one design project, without at least finding out which end of the soldering iron to hold on to.

The way it should be, posted 21 Apr 2003 at 22:00 UTC by The Swirling Brain » (Master)

I have met people who were supposedly software engineers with masters degrees who couldn't program their way out of a bag. I had one person ask me what a C pointer was. It was all I could do to keep from laughing in their face.

I think this method of teaching by building a robot is genius! The way it should be. I'm just sure some clods will figure out how to get a grade without doing the work, still, though. Nothing surprises me anymore.

What kills me is companies will hire clods based on a piece of paper, but won't or can't hire superior minds that don't have a piece of paper. Sad.

Colleges should lose their accredidation when they put out students that prove to be inept after graduation.

Good Idea, Cheesy Name, posted 22 Apr 2003 at 00:53 UTC by zeevon » (Observer)

As a computer engineering student about to graduate, I can only shake my head and agree with the above comments. It's unfortunate, but when lab groups are made up of 3 or more people, it makes it easy for lazy people to glide through without applying anything they learn (if they actually retain any theoretical knowledge is another concern).

It's often a good idea to ask if job applicants have any personal projects that they work on in their spare time. I find that competent graduates are always learning as much as they can in their spare time (or whatever is left of it).

Re: The way it should be...., posted 22 Apr 2003 at 14:49 UTC by earlwb » (Master)

The Swirling Brain said, "What kills me is companies will hire clods based on a piece of paper, but won't or can't hire superior minds that don't have a piece of paper. Sad"

The trick is getting good applicants past the HR departments. I remember we were trying to hire someone for a year, and had very few resumes make it to us. It turns out the HR dept. was filtering out all the applicants based on some really stupid or oddball rules. None of which had anything to do with IT or software development. Once we found the problem, and got all the resumes we were able to find someone out of the HR reject pile that we needed. I remember one HR dept. would have everyone take a integrity test, what was interesting was that no one ever seemed to pass the test. Makes me wonder how I passed it myself. When they changed the rules, we were able to get the programmers we needed. Apparently programmers don't think like "normal" people or something, and somehow wind up failing the integrity test. This is a test where they ask you 100 questions or more, many questions ask the same thing over and over in uniquely different ways to trip you up to see if your honest or not. Another HR dept. made all software programming applicants take a typing test. if you couldn't type so many words per minute accurately, they put your resume in the reject bin.

My 2 Cents..., posted 22 Apr 2003 at 14:54 UTC by dude_plasma » (Apprentice)

I wish we had something like that here at my school. Currently, I am involved with a project at my school to establish a Robotics major here. The sad part is the professor in charge of us has no idea about hands on experience and how to level us up to an interesting project. He automatically expected us to analyze the Roomba and have a full technical report. Furthermore, he wants us to help out high school kids when we don't have a clue to what we are doing. It's that whole volunteerism above education crap they are teaching us in college these days.

Myself, I am a CS major and I know what a pointer is. A matter of fact, I just got done dealing with a bunch of students who didn't know what they were. Back on topic, I think the Electrical Engineering Department here does a horrible job teaching students here. From what I see, for the most part they do a lot of theory and nothing else.

I hope more colleges across the US take the initiative to do what Oregon State is doing.

This level of incompetence isn't isolated to EE. , posted 25 Apr 2003 at 17:14 UTC by Jhoffa_ » (Journeyer)

Fortunately (or Unfortunately, I suppose) hard sciences like Electrical Engineering are a kind of go/no go gauge for applicants. Even the most charismatic, good looking, smooth, connected, book smart person in the world can't talk their way past an obstacle they just don't comprehend in EE. (per your examples above)

I am not an EE guy (yet, I should say) my background is in multi-unit retail & restaurant management. This is a hobby for me.

These same types make their way into other fields also, sometimes with disastrous results.

Imagine Restaurant managers who have no concept of proper food handling & sanitation procedures. Even after having it explained countless times, they still run the risk of poisoning people. It's amazing. Talk about liability, I wonder how many unsuited folks are in the medical field?

The saving grace of sciences like EE is that you can't fake it. It's impossible. You can either do it, or you can't.

Other fields are easier to fudge and (sadly) there's not a go / no go, end all test for competence. Think about that the next time you feel bad after a trip to the salad bar.

In terms of dollars, I wonder how much damage these people do annualy, simply by virtue of choosing a profession they are (at least currently) completely unsuited for.

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