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Embedded Systems: A Hands-On, Lab-Based Course

This is a guest blog post from the University of Texas at Austin’s Embedded Systems – Shape the World course team. 

Learning By Doing On The edX Platform

We have designed, implemented and deployed a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with a substantial lab component within the edX platform. If MOOCs are truly going to transform education, then they must be able to deliver laboratory classes. Embedded Systems – Shape The World goes a long way in unraveling the perceived complexities in delivering a laboratory experience to tens of thousands of students from all around the globe. We believe the techniques developed in this course will significantly transform the MOOC environment.

Effective education requires students to learn by doing. In the traditional academic setting this active learning is delivered in a lab format. A number of important factors have combined to allow a lab class like this to be taught. First, we have significant support from industrial partners ARM Inc and Texas Instruments. Second, the massive growth of embedded microcontrollers has made the availability of low-cost development platforms feasible. Third, we have assembled a team with the passion, patience, and experience of delivering quality lab experiences to large classes. Lastly, online tools now exist that allow students to interact and support each other.

Scaling the Benefits of On-Campus Learning

We wish to explore new ways to deliver educational content. In a typical embedded system lab, the student combines mechanical and electrical components interfacing them to a microcontroller to create a system. The student writes software that is loaded onto a microcontroller, which then performs a specific and dedicated task. To get a grade, the student demonstrates the lab solution to the teaching assistant (TA). There are three tasks the TA performs: first, the TA must control the process by asking questions or requesting the solution perform appropriate tasks, second, the TA must observe the actions and reactions, and third, the TA must judge whether the solution achieved the desired outcome. We have captured these three TA-tasks by developing a suite of software plug-ins that run inside the compiler-debugger and additional software that resides in the microcontroller itself.

From the learner:

Very clever way to extend the MOOC concept into the tangible world. I feel much better informed and prepared for this having completed the course. I will definitely be referring back to the material frequently!

Students Are Empowered To Make New Discoveries

An embedded system combines mechanical and electrical components along with a computer, hidden inside, to perform a single dedicated purpose. The overall educational objective of this course is to allow students to discover how the computer interacts with its environment. The specific educational objectives include microcontroller programming, outputting to LEDs and displays, inputting from switches and transducers, creating sound, real-time programming with interrupts, creating a network by connecting microcontrollers together, multithreaded programming of a hand-held video game and building a smart object that logs data onto an Internet server. The course provides hands-on experiences of how an embedded system could be used to solve problems. Active learning requires a platform for the student to learn by doing.

What’s next?

Thus far, we have focused evaluation on the functional aspects of system performance. E.g., in the traffic light lab we set the car and pedestrian sensors and see if the traffic lights change in an appropriate sequence. However, good design involves many qualitative factors such as style and structure. One method we will try in the Spring 2016 class is to create small cohorts, such that after they complete the functional aspects of a lab, they submit pieces of their software to each other and ask them to evaluate qualitatively: “Is the software easy to understand?” “Is the software easy to debug?” and “Would the software be easy to change?” We are eager to see what software the students submit and what qualitative assessments they exchange with each other.

Embedded Systems – Shape the World successfully ran twice with over 72,000 learners. With 11,000 learners completing at least one lab requiring the physical kit and 5,300 (7.3%) learners receiving a certificate. Students who completed an end of course survey reported a 95% overall satisfaction.

If you’re interested in building real-world embedded solutions enroll in Embedded Systems- Shape the World today!