Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Quanser Linear Current Amplifier on the Way to Space

There was nothing unusual about the request for information on Quanser's control hardware that we received few months ago, except for the note: "FYI. We use a pair of your LCAMs to drive the beam director of our 8 kw laser power beaming system for NASA Space Elevator Games. We finished second last year." Well, that sparked some interest, because how higher can Quanser system ever get?!

Surprisingly, the competing team is not affiliated to any university or college. A group of hobbiests took on the challenge. "The competition has caught my attention," explained Brian Turner, the captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates team, " because it's something new that hasn't been done before. It's truly a multi-discipline challenge."

Brian gathered a team of other enthusiasts with knowledge and skills in different areas - electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, specialists on solar energy and optics. But the team is not limited to professionals: Dan Leafblad joined as a student at the age of 14.

As the NASA Space Elevator Games rules evolved, requiring the climber to go higher and higher, KC Space Pirates had to turn to more sophisticated system design. Mirrors focusing the sun beam were not sufficient to power the climber up to 1km. Instead, the team turned to laser. More complex system meant more design challenges. "In order to keep the laser aimed as the climber goes up, you need to track it," explained Brian. "We augmented the laser system so that it was able to tell whether the climber was moving upwards, downwards, left or right and used a fast steering mirror to steer the beam. The steering mirror was driven by voice coils." Powering the voice coils turned out to be an issue. After trying several other options, the team came across Quanser's LCAM - linear current amplifier. LCAMs proved to provide ideal operation range in terms of current, voltage and resistance. "We just did the calibration and your solution worked for us beautifully - there was no longer a problem," Brain commented.

Although the team did not win the prize in the 2010, they came pretty close. But what KC Space Pirates can claim are kids inspired to pursue science and engineering not only as a hobby, but also as a career. KC Space Pirates team members often visit middle and high schools to talk about science and engineering. "Competitions like this," says Brian, " turn science into sport. The kids see that participation in science can be fun and cool, just as the participation in sports."

Take Dan Leafblad, one of the KC Space Pirates. He himself joined the team at 14, after hearing Brian talking at the local science club. "Before getting involved with the team, I had no deep interest in science or robotics," says Dan. "After few months with the Space Pirates, it was clear to me I want to do engineering in the future. " As Dan explained, it was great for him to see that he can use the math he learned at home in a real application and design a part of the system. Last fall Dan started his first year at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla. And no wonder right in his freshmen year, Dan became a member of the Missouri S&T Solar Car Team.

And as for the LCAM, we have to see whether it will "reach" the space. It's great to know it has the power to do so.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Quanser Curriculum Helps Assess Students' Knowledge and Skills

Educational institutions and programs around the globe undergo accreditation process to demonstrate they can meet standards set for higher education by their governments or professional organizations.

ABET Accreditation
In the United States, accreditation is a peer-review process, independent of government and coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions. One of the most respected organizations specializing in accreditation of educational programs in applied science, computing, science and technology is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology - ABET.

Focused on Learnig Outcomes
In the past, ABET’s criteria for accreditation outlined the major elements that engineering programs must have, such as program curricula, faculty type and facilities. However, in the last decade the focus shifted away from the inputs - what material is taught, to the outputs - what students learned. This approach encourages innovation in engineering programs and program improvements rather than forcing all programs to follow the same standard.

If your course is part of the ABET or a similar engineering program assessment, you most likely need to evaluate students' ability to:
- apply knowledge of math, science and engineering
- design and conduct experiments, and analyze and interpret data
- communicate effectively
- use techniques, skills and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice

Student Outcome Assessment Embedded in the Course Curriculum
To help educators with assessment of their course, Quanser teamed with Dr. Hakan Gurocak from the Washington State University in Vancouver, USA to rewrite the instructor manual for the Rotary Position and Rate Control Servo (SRV02), one of Quanser's most popular teaching systems used in engineering labs worldwide. The goal was to embed student outcome assessment in the curriculum and provide professors with a simple framework and set of templates that allow them to measure and document students' achievments of various performance criteria.

Assessing Students' Knowledge
For example, every chapter of the laboratory workbook includes Pre-Lab Questions section, that examines understanding of theoretical background and preliminary calculations relevant to the in-lab experiments. These pre-lab questions require students to apply math, engineering and science knowledge through calculations and problem solving strategies (i.e. Student Outcomes criteria A as defined by ABET). If pre-lab questions are assigned as homework, the results can be easily assessed using scoring sheets and scoring criteria that are provided in the workbook.

Assessing Students' Skills
The Lab Experiments section of the laboratory workbook provides step-by-step instructions to conduct lab experiments and record collected data. The experiments require students to design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data and use various techniques, skills and modern engineering tools, corresponding to the applied part of engineering and mapping Students Outcomes criteria B and K as defined by ABET. As a part of lab work, students are asked to prepare a report and describe used procedures and achieved results, analyse these results and draw conclusions. Lab reports demonstrate level of achieved effective communication skills, i.e. correspond to the Student Outcomes criteria G as defined by ABET. Again, laboratory workbook provides scoring sheets and scoring criteria so that the outcomes can be easily assessed and documented.

Outcome of the Course
Once all pre-lab and lab work is assessed, it is easy to get the overall outcome of the course. Assessment Workbook, developed by Quanser using Microsoft Excel takes all scores and assembles them into a single score for each Student Outcomes criteria assessed during the course. This Assessment Workbook has no automatic features and allows user to customize it in any way.

For a sample of ABET-aligned rotary servo curriculum, please contact Quanser at info@quanser.com

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Virtual Experiments Introduced at 49th IEEE Conference on Decision and Control

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the 49th IEEE Conference on Decision and Control in Atlanta, Georgia USA. Once again, the Conference on Decision and Control brought together an international community of researchers and practitioners in the field of automatic control to discuss the latest advancements of the discipline, shape its future directions, and promote its diffusion among the scientific community at large.

The highlight of our exhibit at the conference was our announcement of our partnership with John Wiley and Sons to feature 10 virtual experiments from Quanser in the newly released 6th edition of Norman S. Nise’s Control Systems Engineering. As many of you know, Nise’s book is the most wildly adopted text for core control courses in mechanical, electrical and other engineering programs.

The ten virtual control experiments are powered by LabVIEW and allow students to manipulate Quanser's simulated lab plants and view realistic response behavior. The virtual experiments will help deepen students' homework learning experience and help them prepare for their actual lab work using Quanser’s real plants.

For more information about the virtual experiments supplied with the textbook please visit our blog: http://quanser.blogspot.com/2010/12/teach-control-virtually-anywhere-with.html. And, for a limited time, you can request a complimentary copy of Nise’s text by completing an online survey at http://survey.constantcontact.com/survey/a07e35fyitnggtjdjjy/start.