How do you teach mechatronics?
Specifically, if mechatronics includes many aspects of engineering, how do you cover multiple areas of engineering in a (especially 4-year undergraduate) degree program? I know taking individual courses each covering mechanics, electronics, computers, control and design will provide a great basis for mechatronics, but if each topic is covered independently, how do you integrate engineering knowledge?
(These are not rhetorical questions - I would love any opinions.)
I believe this cannot be just another final project done in the last couple weeks of a course. A project needs to be engrossing, challenging and time-intensive in order to stretch students in mechanics, electronics, computers, control, and inevitably design and project management – i.e. mechatronics.
A project isn’t an all encompassing solution to learning mechatronics, but offering an intense project-based course, e.g. in robotics, grouped with technical courses would provide a solid foundation. One moot point, taking a mechatronics course during or even before taking more in-depth electrical or mechanical courses may provide a student with greater relevance when learning the intricacies of advanced topics. Projects throughout a degree are important, but finalizing an undergraduate experience with an expert level project is crucial.
In my first semester of freshman year at Olin College, I learned extensively about the properties, uses and limitations of the op-amp (specifically the OPA551 chip) in a required course titled Engineering: Modeling & Control of Compartment Systems. We built follower circuits, inverters, comparators, integrators, differentiators, and more using the op-amp. It was engaging, but it wasn’t until we implemented most of the uses together in an electrical analog of a perpetual pendulum (wheel and motor on right) when I saw the bigger picture of possible uses of the op-amp. After the semester, I looked into building a piano keyboard amplifier and I specifically remember looking at the circuit diagram, seeing coupled op-amps and thinking, “Wow, I know what that does!”
The best source of engineering experience may be the “real world,” but if a foundation of engineering skills is in place, I think experience is very achievable through a hands-on project-based college engineering program.