Reaching Higher Order Thinking in Mechatronics using a Controller Comparative Study

Contributing USMA Research Unit(s)

Civil and Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Robotics Research Center

Publication Date


Publication Title

Proceedings of ASEE-NE

Document Type



Many studies have found active learning, either in the form of in-class exercises or projects, to be superior to traditional lectures. However, these forms of hands-on learning do not always get students to reach the higher order thinking skills associated with the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (i.e., analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). Students using a set of procedural instructions to follow, an expected approach, and a well-defined solution contributes to the lack of higher order thinking. Professional engineers often face complex and ambiguous problems that require design decisions, where there is no straightforward answer, and these need higher order thinking skills. To strengthen the higher order thinking skills of our graduates, we developed a project in our semester-long mechatronics course where students must fairly evaluate two automatic control methodologies for an application without being given explicit performance criteria or experimental procedures. More specifically, the project involves determining the superior control method for leader-follower behavior in which a ground vehicle autonomously follows behind a lead vehicle. Laboratory exercises throughout the semester expose the students to the skills they need for the project: using sensors and actuators, programming a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller and a fuzzy controller, and using computer vision to detect the signature of an object. In the final course project, they go beyond implementing individual controllers and create their own evaluation criteria and experiments for making a design decision between PID and fuzzy control. We implemented this approach for two semesters, and our significant findings are: 1) students generally appreciate the aspect of working on a real-world and open-ended problem, 2) most teams developed creative performance criteria and methods for evaluating controller performance, clearly demonstrating higher order thinking, and 3) students discover that creating a comparative study is nontrivial due to the number of factors that influence performance, which mimics the practical problems they will likely face as engineers.

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