Go Forth and Measure

Matthew J. Lang

Go forth and measure, GF, is a capstone lab performed individually by students enrolled in mechanical engineering's core measurement and instrumentation course, 2.671. The GF project spans the whole semester beginning with a getting-to-know-your-sensor exercise and ending with a departmental wide poster session and project paper. The individualized projects require multiple one-on-one meetings with students. Project topics are vetted by instructors but chosen by students. The topics are unique and creative, frequently relating to a personal passion, interest, curiosity or hobby. Students don't see their projects as boring, and as a result, a student's ability to put into practice the course material is substantially enhanced. Many projects lead directly into a senior thesis and get students noticed and recruited to undergraduate research.

The GF project has expanded over the years and progresses semester long through a series of milestone goals representing 28% of the overall course grade. Students initially are given a lecture on SI units followed by snippets of past projects that showcase an array of sensors, many of which are from Vernier, that measure acceleration, temperature, pH, sound, velocity, force, light level, pressure and images at high speed. Milestone 1 is to propose a study and define one or more sensors that will be required for use in the measurement, including documentation of sensor resolution and measurement range specifications. (This milestone is due week 2, representing 2% of the course grade.) Here the project is reviewed, including for safety, allowing for initial feedback and discussion of the idea. The scope of the project is also discussed as students can frequently be overly ambitious, planning to measure many parameters or perform multiple measurements simultaneously. Some projects span many weeks and require careful initial planning. Milestone 2, (week 5, 4%), requires an actual measurement of any kind of data relating to the project. By this point, students have received instruction on how to use the AtoD logging measurement modules, (we use Labpro units,) which are signed out along with appropriate sensors. Students are now practiced at making the type of measurement needed for their project. Here students again review the scope of the project and more carefully plan their full study.

Milestone 3 requires executing the full study and submitting a rough draft of a project paper, (week 8, 6%). To do this, students go deep into their projects collecting the lion share of the data. Students necessarily begin their analysis and modeling. Draft papers are reviewed by faculty for technical content and revised with formal writing instruction. While working on their paper revisions, students prepare a draft poster and meet with their lab section for a practice poster session, Milestone 4 (week 11, 4%). The poster is revised and students present their projects at a departmental wide poster session, Milestone 5 (week 12/13, 4%).  Final project papers, Milestone 6, are due at the end of term, (week 14, 8%).

A number of assets are required, in particular the enthusiasm, passion and organization from our laboratory instructor. Our term enrollments are 70+ students distributed among 5 or more sections. Faculty also need to be engaged and provide constant feedback along the way to maintain project progress. The lab is physically equipped with enough AtoD modules for each student and a warehouse of sensors and parts for building what is needed to achieve project goals. Additional resources, such as student access to advanced measurements including high speed cameras, wind tunnels and general equipment found in institute or departmental labs, can substantially enhance the ranges of projects students can approach. Small funds are also available for purchasing additional sensors that are not part of the lab inventory. Despite these considerable assets, many projects are executed with everyday devices such as cell phones and low cost components that the students simply wire up themselves. Students energize their projects with people power, heavily recruiting their colleagues as subjects and assistants.

Launching a fully loaded GF project from scratch can be difficult. Rather, a robust GF project can be built on over the years. Initially, our GF project went only to the point of requiring a single measurement and a one page abstract. One might initiate a GF project by working only through Milestone 2, and ramping up after an inventory of sensors and know-how has been amassed. One can also reduce the scope of the GF project by only requiring a final poster or a paper but not both. A GF paper is valuable for formal writing instruction due to the uniqueness of the topics, while a GF poster allows students to practice communication and presentation skills.

From the faculty perspective, the GF project has been rewarding to teach. Students put a great deal of effort into the projects, with some studies even approaching original research articles. Students can express their creativity while learning how to design and optimize a study. Students apply lessons learned in the core labs and lectures to achieve many more projects than one faculty team could develop each term. Our standard core labs include pressure determination in a soda can, interferometry, stress strain, fluid flow, muscle force, motor output, electro-mechanical systems, and sound speed. Adding to this curriculum are “n” student implemented studies, projects that are interesting, fun, contemporary and constantly being refreshed. For example my Fall 2009 project topics included concentrating solar power, rabbit nutrition, drafting by swimmers, impact of soccer ball heading, wall flip dynamics of free-runners, calf muscle stimulation in runners/walkers, spin on table tennis serves, soccer kick dynamics, angular velocity in swing dance moves, delay in campus bus vs. time/day of week/ weather, building height determination, wine glass frequencies, kitchen pot frequencies, harmonics of cylindrical vs. conical wind instruments, non-dimensional leg kinematics and wind speed around buildings.

I would like to acknowledge my fellow instructors, Ian Hunter and John Leonard. I am especially grateful for the special dedication of Dr. Barbara Hughey and former students enrolled in MIT's 2.671, Measurement and Instrumentation course.

Matthew Lang is an Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Vanderbilt University. He moved there from MIT in 2010.

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