Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Innovative Ways of Teaching Control Concepts—Who Benefits Most?

I’m relatively new at Quanser, but already I’ve been given an opportunity to contribute to an exciting new initiative that aims to make controls education more engaging and effective for both students and professors. During my second week on the job, I was invited to a presentation given by Jacob Apkarian on a new approach to controls education.

Student Participation is Key
Jacob began by outlining the long-accepted, fundamental elements of a successful undergraduate laboratory. These include such essentials as experimentation, creativity, teamwork, communication, design and learning from failure. He then went on to propose a new and final element in the success of any laboratory: student participation. In order to motivate students to fully participate in the laboratory, he outlined three additional requirements:
  1. Relevance: Foster an appreciation for the value of the theory being learned by connecting the theoretical concepts to real-world applications
  2. Career: Use contemporary technology and tools to prepare students for industrial requirements
  3. Research: Promote self-directed learning to further their knowledge beyond the lab requirements
Accelerated Controls Education with the Quanser Driving Simulator
Since that meeting, I’ve become heavily involved in the project that Jacob outlined that afternoon. As you may have guessed, the primary goal of the laboratory is to take the normally dry and math-oriented control systems curriculum and make it relevant and engaging, while still covering the requisite curriculum goals of the course. To accomplish this audacious goal, Jacob and other members of the engineering team at Quanser created an equally audacious solution—the Quanser Driving Simulator (QDS).

The QDS structure allows students to design an autonomous driver model, as well as controllers for several hardware-in-the-loop components.

The QDS is a modular and expandable Simulink model of a car driving on a closed track. The model uses the QUARC Visualization block to immerse students in a highly detailed 3D environment. Through the use of real-time hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) components, students are able to gain an immediate real-world context for the control topics being covered. Here you can see the QDS in action:

An Immersive Experience for Students 
The system can be used to teach a wide-variety of topics including PD velocity control of a DC motor, PI position control of a DC motor, state-space modeling and control of an active suspension system, and autonomous vehicle navigation.

Moreover, students are able to design, model and
implement control systems with the objective of creating functional automotive analogs including a parking assist system, radar guided cruise control, active suspension, etc. In keeping with our goals, the laboratory curriculum is designed to promote critical thinking and big-picture analysis to make students’ observations relevant to real-world concepts.

The laboratory sessions conclude with a research or competitive component that prompts students to develop creative, new approaches to the challenge while gaining a better grasp of conventional approaches to engineering research and development.

A Paradigm Shift in Curriculum Development
Beyond the specifics of the lab and equipment, the QDS marks a paradigm shift in the way we approach laboratory curriculum development. The QDS serves as a model for a new lab-in-a-box concept where entire laboratory curriculum is developed as a virtual, hardware-independent session. Core topics of control systems are covered as elements of a larger real-world topic to highlight how and why engineers use control systems everyday. In essence, the labs answer the burning question of “why should I care?”

Everyone Benefits Equally
Innovative and dynamic, it advances the way control systems and engineering pedagogy are addressed in the laboratory. It’s a revolutionary new approach that offers great benefits to teachers and students alike. I am proud to be a part of it.

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