By Alissa Mallinson
If you had to pick one word to describe the Department of Mechanical Engineering curriculum, you’d be hard-pressed to choose anything other than “hands-on.”
The department boasts numerous well-known project-based classes such as 2.007, 2.008, 2.009, 2.00b, 2.12, 2.72, 2.75, 2.737, and 2.739. Most of them are focused on product design and development, as you would expect, but there are others that are focusing on the interface between mechanical engineering and other engineering fields.
One of them is Professor Derek Rowell’s 2.678: Electronics for Mechanical Systems, which focuses on giving undergraduates experience and familiarity with integrating electronics into their designs of systems and products. The course was created three years ago in response to an Undergraduate Office student survey that reported a significant interest in learning electronics as mechanical engineers.
“The field of mechatronics – the integration of electronics into mechanical engineering – has been a creeping idea for many, many years now,” says Professor Rowell. “It has broadened significantly and is necessary for mechanical engineers to understand in order to integrate all these new technologies into mechanical design.”
In typical MechE fashion, 2.678 emphasizes learning by doing, with weekly labs that are the cornerstone of the course. Each lab is structured around a particular project that utilizes the concepts presented during the week’s lecture; for example, students build a digital scale to learn how to use operational amplifiers for electronic processing and an audio amplifier to learn about how transistors work. They also learn how to drive a motor at different speeds going both forwards and backwards, how to do power conversions, use microcontrollers, and interface Arduino with mechanical systems.
“I don’t think you can teach electronics out of a book,” says Professor Rowell. “It’s important to burn your fingers when you burn out resistors, to learn to solder, and to learn what physical components look and feel like.”
The course, which is now required for the department’s customizable Course 2-A program, is a 6-unit course offered each semester to about 80 students. It comes at a very useful time in the undergraduate curriculum, helping to prepare students for Course 2.671: Measurement and Instrumentation and Course 2.007: Design and Manufacturing I, which utilize control systems and microcontrollers, respectively. The ability to prepare students for these courses in advance could mean that they take on more advanced material during the semester.