Tag Archives: engineering

Machine Learning is Cool!

I’m continuing to really dig Coursera. After completing an Algorithms course there this summer (discussed in my post here), I am now in the midst of a course on Machine Learning. Go check out the course description & video now; I’ll wait.

As you saw by following that link, machine learning is a way that computers and robots can learn to predict or distinguish different things. It is used lots of places, including your email spam filter (which learns every time you flag a message as spam). It is a form of artificial intelligence that mimics our own intelligence–we don’t get born already knowing how to do everything, but instead learn various tasks from others.

Anyway, I’m writing today because I just wrote a series of programs that enabled my computer to decode handwritten numbers and figure out which digit(s) are represented. I’m proud of myself 🙂 — that’s a pretty cool thing to program, and a pretty cool thing for my computer to learn how to do!

The program, after having gone through training, correctly reading the number 2.

(PS – I promise more soon on my day at Morgan last week.)


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Summer of Learning

(This post was mostly written last Tuesday, so dates referenced will be from then.)

So, last summer for me was a summer of travel. Over 10,000 miles round trip, from sea to shining sea, along roads new and old, long and short.

This year will be a summer of travel for my mind, instead. I have a number of different learning projects I am planning/attempting, from workshops to conferences, from in-person classes to online classes.  Nearly all of which is free!

Here are a few of my plans:

Fab Lab

Yesterday, I attended  a class which introduced me to our local Fab Lab at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). A Fab Lab  (Fabrication Lab) is a community-driven and community-accessible location with computers, machines, and other tools needed for making things. A global network of more than 90 Fab Labs worldwide is run out of MIT. Artists, designers, engineers, inventors, as well as ordinary people with an idea they’d like to make  a physical reality, all use Fab Labs.

The Fab Lab at CCBC is a little over a year old. It has a 3D printer, a CNC router, a CNC mill, a laser cutter/engraver, and a vinyl printer. I made the following key chain using the laser engraver, with the help of the lab’s manager who was teaching me how to use the various machines and associated softwares & tools.

Laser Engraved Key Chain

And a sign for my Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) class, done using the CNC router and featuring a picture of a robotic arm:

CIM Sign, milled from medium density fiberboard using the ShopBot at CCBC’s Fab Lab

Very cool.

VEX Robotics & Automation

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, I’m in a training at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC, just around the corner from CCBC and its Fab Lab above), where I’m learning more about VEX robotics and their role in the Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum. Including learning how the pieces fit together, the functionality of the various sensors & other pieces, and how to program the VEX kits in RobotC, a variant on the widely-used C computer programming language.

I had two groups of students (6 students total) who began using and programming with VEX/RobotC this year. I learned some of it with them, but really appreciate this chance to work with the automation kits myself and really learn it much more deeply.

It’s been fun so far! Here’s the testbed full of motors, lights, and sensors where we are learning how everything works and how to program:

VEX Test Bed

Tomorrow we’ll be unleashed onto some actual functioning projects!

Online Class(es)

I’ve begun an online computer science course, Algorithms: Design and Analysis I, via Coursera.

I’m planning this summer to learn a lot more about computer science / programming. I only took one CS course in college (CS101). Yet I’ve been somewhat into programming ever since programming the quadratic formula (and many other math-related programs, plus a few fun/game programs) into my graphing calculator in tenth grade. In college, I also used some simple computer programs to design some original fractals (Java) and search for patterns in continued fractions (PARI/GP). And I had many friends in both high school and college who majored in CS or related fields. Since I’ve been teaching engineering, several of the courses I teach have involved programming components (see, e.g., the VEX Robotics and Automation section immediately above).

So I figured I’d like to learn more about CS & programming. I signed up this spring for Coursera’s CS101 class, which (though I can’t find a source for this statistic) I think more than 100,000 people worldwide also took along with me. It included video lecture segments, mini-quizzes embedded into the videos, automatically-graded programming assignments, and discussion fora where students could help one another (since the professor could not interact with so many of us individually). It was a decent review for me, since it’s been years since I took CS101; I learned a few new things including some specifics of the JavaScript language as well as some things about how computer hardware works. Though it was very easy overall.

Coursera, along with a few other recent innovative websites like it, is being referred to as a MOOC: massive online open classroom (or course). Because its classes are free and accessible worldwide (“open”) and are enrolled in by tens or hundreds of thousands of students at a time (“massive”). Some people are talking about MOOCs as the next big step in the educational revolution; I can attest that the experience is much more like an actual class than just viewing lecture videos. I have yet to really engage the discussion fora for help, but I see study groups forming there, both in-person meetings based on geography, and Skype study groups being set up  based on time zone or language spoken. Many other people ask questions in the fora which are quickly answered by fellow students or volunteer teaching assistants.

If this topic intrigues you, check out the two articles linked above (the words ‘some’ and ‘people’). They are quite interesting and thought-provoking about the future of education!

This summer, I signed up for the Algorithms course, which looks like it will be much more challenging, though also like I will learn a lot from it. First I had to pick a programming language. I feel like a lightweight in several languages, from my experience in Java years ago, to knowing a little C based on my robotics teaching experience, to knowing a little Python based on using it to control a virtual robot and help it navigate a maze in an after-school club I advise. I spent this weekend taking a crash course in Python to catch myself up to speed. After that, so far in the Algorithms course, one week in, I’ve programmed a multiplication algorithm and programmed/analyzed the running time of a merge sort algorithm. I’ve spent dozens of hours on it so far, but am really enjoying it!

Both CS101 and Algorithms are taught by Stanford professors; Coursera partners with faculty from several universities.

On a lighter note, I’ve also signed up for this Udacity course that says it will be looking at/analyzing/explaining some cool physics problems, while also visiting actual historical locations in Europe of the scientists who studied them. I’m thinking it will give me some nice perspective and/or new ideas for teaching the physics-related sections of Principles of Engineering (POE).

Materials Science

Speaking of new ideas for teaching POE, I’ve also signed on to take a week-long materials science course at Howard University in Washington, DC. It is being sponsored by ASM International, a materials science/engineering professional society formerly known as the American Society of Metals. They provide free materials camps for teachers across the country at many different sites (see their website for more info).

I signed up for this because a) it’s free; b) it’s local – I can just catch the MARC train from Baltimore into DC; but mostly c) to learn more about and be able to teach the materials unit of POE better. I feel that the materials engineering unit/lessons in POE are often the dullest sections for my students. All of POE is quite difficult/challenging, with a lot of advanced mathematics and high-level physics concepts. But the other units I am able to better balance out between the difficulty of the concepts and the exciting projects we do. In this unit, students analyze properties of various materials, discuss what causes those properties, discuss how materials are used in manufacturing processes, do various materials-related math word problems, and use a stress analyzer machine to pull apart (stretch it until it breaks, called a tensile test) a piece of metal and then analyze its graph. While students love seeing the metal piece snap in two, I am not able to sustain that interest through the rest of the unit, which I take as a failing on my part. So, I hope to learn more during my week of Materials Mania, as well as to find ways of engaging students better in the topic.

Fullerene Nano Gears, image from Wikipedia

Hooray for the start to my summer of learning!

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Renewable Energy

Happy Leap Day everyone!

One group's project, including solar cells, hydrogen fuel cells, windmill, and breadboard with two series circuits (red & yellow LEDs)

I’ve written before about renewable energy. One of the projects my ninth graders just completed is a renewable energy power plant and distribution system. The challenge is to use solar power, wind power, and hydrogen fuel cells to provide light to a city. The red LEDs above represent houses in the residential section, and the yellow LEDs represent businesses in the industrial section. It is a windy city (Chicago perhaps?), so a fan is blowing all day long and wind power can be utilized the entire time. But power needs to be provided both in daytime and at nigthttime, whether the sun (a lamp) is shining or not. That forces the students to use the fuel cells and wind power and not only to rely on the solar/photovoltaic cells.

Another group's project

The students really liked this project, and I think they learned a lot too. Everything from how to wire circuits, to using a multimeter, to Ohm’s and Kirchhoff’s Laws for electricity, to all about different sources of energy. Like many of us, they are excited about the energy sources of the future (e.g., hydrogen-powered cars). Look at this nice sketch a student made:

Sketch of Circuit w/ Multiple Energy Sources

Have a great day!

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3D Printing

In CIM, we briefly discuss some of the rapid prototyping technologies that exist, including 3D printing. Two of my colleagues at school have 3D printers, and with them we can see one of the amazing ways a design can be transformed into a reality.

In contrast to the subtractive way that material is removed from a wooden block to make jewelry boxes, 3D printing is an additive process. Material is laid down and fused or solidified, one thin cross-sectional layer at a time.

3D printing is changing the way we make things. Usually things made in small quantities are expensive, with cost coming down if they are mass-produced. 3D printing is a relatively-cheap way to create something unique or low-volume. This is one reason it has often been used by engineers to create a physical prototype of some designed idea, that can be examined and tested (and revised), before moving on to the more expensive venture of producing the actual item created traditionally from the final materials.

But with more and more materials becoming 3D printable–beyond the usual plastics to gold, titanium, stainless steel–3D printing can be used not just for prototypes but for actual manufactured products. From art to jewelry to lamps to cup-holders to vases.

Fractal- T by Platform Studio & Matthias Bär ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Combining the conventional 2D techniques of printing and scanning is a way to make copies (e.g. the photocopier machine). The same can be done with 3D scanning, limited of course by materials and the fineness of the scanner. See Stephen Colbert’s head scanned and printed here.

3D printing also has ramifications in medicine. Bone and joint structure can be 3D printed, allowing more sophisticated implants and artificial limbs. Artificial blood vessels that are will be accepted by the body are near the point of being 3D printed. And organ scaffolds are being 3D printed that may one day allow for cell and organ regeneration.

Anyway, 3D printing is cool, I guess that’s my message here 🙂


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Trip to BGE

Yesterday we took a tour of Baltimore Gas & Electric‘s Spring Gardens facility in South Baltimore.

We heard about the environmental protection efforts BGE has been implementing at that site. We learned about the history of BGE, back almost 200 years to its beginnings as a gas light company. We got to listen in on calls being handled by customer service agents (!). And then we discussed and toured their field of 572 solar panels.

Solar Panel Array at BGE Spring Gardens

We talked about how the solar panels worked, how much energy they generated, how it was turned into electricity used by the other buildings there, and how it was helping the environment.

This was awesome because our tenth grade students (the target audience of this trip) had just been learning about energy, power, and specifically renewable energy sources. They had recently built cars powered by solar panels, and also had created alternative-energy-fueled model power plants that distributed energy through circuits to model homes and businesses. I love the chance to make connections, both between classes and from class to the outside world.


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Principles of Engineering Skills

So I’m thinking of giving a skills list a try in my Principles of Engineering (POE) course this semester too. It wouldn’t be full-on standards-based grading (SBG), since in such a project-driven class I need projects and reports to be the major component to student grades, but I think I can adapt a skills list for quizzes (and occasional outside-of-quiz skills demonstration). I’m tentatively planning 50% projects, 25% skills quizzes, and 25% portfolio–including engineer’s notebook.

Below find my first draft for a skills-based outline of how I intend to teach POE this semester. I will be teaching a mix of ninth and twelfth graders, with backgrounds ranging from Algebra I to Precalculus. This will be tough, as POE is the most math-intensive of the PLTW engineering courses. I must try to teach advanced math applications while not boring my students out of their minds, while at the same time exposing students to the great concepts and societal role of engineering and its subfields.

To all the former, current, and future engineers out there, I welcome your input on the skills listed below. Likewise to engineering high school teachers across the country (for your reference, I’ve mixed up the unit order due to equipment lacks: my order goes Unit 2,4,3,1). Or anyone else with an opinion on engineering education.

While I am constrained somewhat by PLTW’s POE curriculum, I do have some choice in what I emphasize and in which skills I test. Are these skills phrased well? Are they representative of what engineering is all about? Are the major subfields of engineering represented (this is a survey course)? Are there any that are too vague (or too narrow) or seem like they don’t belong?

I’m still welcoming feedback to my Algebra 2 with Trigonometry skills list here for about one more day, so my more mathematically-minded readers may like to head over there to ponder and critique.

POE Skills List

General STEM Skills

  1. Solve equations for a single variable
  2. Substitute numbers for variables in algebraic formulae
  3. Measure lengths and angles to appropriate precision (given the context of the application and the accuracy of the tool)
  4. Use trigonometry to solve for missing sides or angles
  5. Apply the Pythagorean Theorem to find unknown sides in right triangles
  6. Use trigonometry to find unknown sides & angles in right triangles
  7. Use the digital dropbox on TS3/Blackboard to submit work
  8. Identify problems to be solved in an engineering context
  9. List multiple possible solutions to engineering problems
  10. Evaluate each possible solution based on specifications & test results
  11. Show knowledge of, and skillful application of, the engineering design process
  12. Show knowledge of various careers in engineering and other STEM fields

Unit 2 – Materials & Structures

  1. Identify five types of bridges by name, definition, and/or picture
  2. Split a force vector into its x- and y-components
  3. Calculate the centroid of various shapes
  4. Calculate forces and moments acting on various objects
  5. Pick appropriate formulae relating to stress, strain, and material testing
  6. Analyze stress-strain graphs to determine material properties
  7. Calculate bridge efficiency
  8. Analyze a bridge for structural and material strengths and weaknesses

Unit 4 – Statistics & Kinematics

  1. Collect and analyze data using statistical measures of center and variance
  2. Calculate speed and velocity
  3. Calculate the effect of gravity on velocity and position
  4. Analyze horizontal and vertical components of projectile motion

Unit 3 – Control Systems

  1. Create flow charts to represent a process
  2. Identify inputs and outputs in a control system
  3. Identify elements of a flow chart or RoboPro program and their key attributes
  4. Utilize branches in a flow chart or RoboPro program
  5. Utilize variables in a flow chart or RoboPro program
  6. Interpret a flow chart or RoboPro program
  7. Identify open and closed loop systems
  8. Demonstrate an understanding of pneumatic and hydraulic power

Unit 1 – Energy & Power

  1. Calculate ideal mechanical advantage for each simple machine
  2. Calculate actual mechanical advantage and efficiency for each simple machine
  3. Calculate gear ratio
  4. Demonstrate an understanding of electricity and electrical circuits (series/parallel)
  5. Use Ohm’s Law and Kirchhoff’s Laws to calculate resistance, current, and voltage
  6. Calculate work, energy, power, and power efficiency
  7. Demonstrate an understanding of the laws of thermodynamics and thermal energy transfer
  8. Demonstrate knowledge of alternative and renewable energy sources

A total of 40 skills. What do you think?


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Science and Engineering Fest

A week ago, on Sunday 10/24, I woke up early, walked to Baltimore’s Penn Station, and got on a train to Washington, D.C. The moon was out as I walked in both cities.

Moon Over DC

Moon Over DC

Moon Over Baltimore

Moon Over Baltimore

In DC, I walked around exploring and sightseeing for a bit.  As they started to arrive and set up for the day along the National Mall, I talked with some of the mathematical groups represented at the first ever United States Science and Engineering Festival. I was wearing my NCTM shirt, so some of them thought at first that I was the NCTM rep. I got a pi temporary tattoo from the MAA. [Check out the MAA’s photos and field guide to math on the national mall here!] Later in the day, I took this photo of a mathy pyramid sculpture from the sculpture garden near the National Mall and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Pyramid Sculpture

I met up with 35 students and three teachers from my high school, and we all had a great time playing with science and engineering at the interactive exhibits. The soccer-playing robots were great! And I enjoyed the rare-earth magnets which, placed in a line along a ruler with stops, were powerful enough to send the last one shooting at high velocity off the edge of the ruler! Many universities, associations, and companies that deal with the STEM fields were represented. The day was a huge success, fun for me as well as for the students. I hope the Science and Engineering Festival becomes an annual tradition!

I’ll leave you with two other cool sights: a chunk of glacier ice that had traveled all the way from Alaska to be there, and a marimba-playing robot that was featured this spring on the Colbert Report:

Alaskan Glacier Ice

Alaskan Glacier Ice

Jazz Robot

Jazz Robot

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