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Avoiding the Syntax: An Accessible Approach for Introducing First-Year Engineering Students to Microcontrollers
At Ohio Northern University, all first-year engineering students complete a two-course introductory sequence, with a subset of learning outcomes emphasizing computational thinking and familiarity with common laboratory and design equipment. Because past course iterations unintentionally favored topics in mechanical engineering, efforts were made for better inclusion of electrical engineering and computer science. A five-day module was introduced to cover basic concepts in programming and circuit design, whereby students explored the design and implementation of feedback-based microcontroller systems. Starting with procedural instructions, the students learned about inputting data using both analog and digital sensors and outputting data through serial communication, lights, buzzers and more. Students were then given time to explore the available components and design their own circuits in an open-ended task.
Rather than devoting substantial class time to teaching code syntax, instructors utilized a free online drag-and-drop programming tool to allow students to investigate the logic behind various programs in a student-centered environment. This approach accelerated the students’ abilities to construct and design working circuits using components from Arduino-based electronics kits.
This paper details the activity design as well as the findings from pre- and post-activity surveys. Initial survey findings are positive: significant gains were made in areas related to understanding basic programming structure and logic, breadboarding, reading circuit schematics, and using a microcontroller. Students were also asked to address positive and negative aspects of their experiences; this qualitative data will be analyzed for common themes and salient points to improve upon the activity design in future years.