Rapid prototyping is the focus of Miller’s new class

Rapid prototyping is the focus of Miller’s new class

When Jordan Miller, assistant professor of bioengineering, applied for a George R. Brown Teaching Grant, he knew he was looking for a new style of class.

Jordan Miller

“I looked at the kinds of things we work on in our lab,” he explained. “We regularly prototype electronic devices such as 3-D printers and laser cutters, and it occurred to me that having a class where students could have hands-on experience creating device prototypes would be a good way to go.”

The George R. Brown Teaching grants are offered every year to faculty to cover costs for new classes or to augment any needs for existing ones. Miller says then-department chair Rebecca Richards-Kortum encouraged him to apply for the grant and offered departmental matching funds to help get the class fully funded.

“The framework of the Brown Teaching Grant inspired me to develop a new type of course that could push more students toward hardware design,” Miller said. Bioengineering 421/521: Microcontroller Applications was born.

“Electronic devices that can accomplish a specific task are combinations of hardware and software,” he said. “The goal of the class was to educate both undergraduates and graduate students on how to develop software and hardware components that could be integrated into a single device and be applied in the real world.”

Graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan displays one of the intricate designs that he and teammate Jacob Albritton were able to fabricate with a 3-D printer using a microcontroller device they created in Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Jordan Miller's course.

Partnering with Maria Oden, professor in the practice of engineering education and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, Miller was able to host the class at the kitchen’s computing lab. That gave students access to hardware and prototyping equipment with which they could build their devices.

“The Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen is an incredible innovation hub on campus, which critically facilitated the success of this class,” Miller said.

With the inaugural class of 16 bioengineering students who would later form two-person teams, Miller spent the first part of the semester teaching the foundations of the Linux operating system via text-based command-line programming. Later lessons focused on how to build more sophisticated devices that could interface with sensors and control lights, motors and valves.

Because prototyping focuses on the feasibility of an idea, rather than optimizing its final look and feel, the students emphasized the logical flow of inputs to and outputs from their devices. Students developed gadgets of their own using Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer that can run a full Linux Operating System, and Arduino, an open-source single-board microcontroller with high-precision timer and multiple programmable inputs and outputs.

Graduate students Gisele Calderon and Ian Kinstlinger created this whimsical diagram to illustrate CATitude, a device that uses a camera, microcontroller and water pistol to train cats to keep away from off-limit places like kitchen counters. It delivers CATsequences (squirts of water) to feline encroachers and logs violations in a Guilt CATalog that includes an online gallery of "criminal mugshots."

The two devices cost less than $100 and allowed for inexpensive and rapid device prototyping. Students also tapped into the massive community of online enthusiasts for Raspberry Pi and Arduino, finding tutorials and open-source software components that could be integrated into their projects, Miller said.

Students presented their final projects to Miller and their peers this month. Examples of class projects included:

  • a device that authenticates ID cards to authorize dispensing of beer from a keg by graduate students Samantha Paulsen and Karl Gerhardt.
  • a computer vision system for training house cats not to damage property (their device analyzes a live video-feed for cat facial recognition that is coupled to a squirt gun to ward off an offending feline) by graduate students Gisele Calderon and Ian Kinstlinger.
  • and a low-cost device to give students keypad combination access into the common areas of their college suites, negating the need for them to carry two different keys (one for the suite and one for the bedroom) by seniors Sergio Gonzalez and Nimish Mittal.

Despite the whimsical nature of many of the projects, students mastered all the fundamental pieces that go into making a successful electronic device by following standard engineering design criteria.

“I wanted them to focus on carefully laying out the goals of their devices and the milestones they needed to reach to get there,” Miller said. “So it was important they define what their projects could do — but also be explicit about what their device didn’t need to do — to allow for focused development and modularization. Students also pitched future capabilities their device could later be expanded to incorporate.”

Miller was pleased with the whole course and said the class was such a success that it will be offered again next fall.

“It was even better than I imagined,” he said. “Not only did we meet all the goals I set out in the teaching grant, the students were really excited by these projects. When you make the class projects fun to work on, it’s easy to keep students engaged. They were given a ton of leeway in defining and refining the goals for their prototyped devices.

“This class was an amazing experience for me,” he said. “The students completely blew me away with their creativity, innovation and dedication. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these class projects pursued for crowd-funding through Kickstarter to refine their proof-of-concept devices into consumer-level products.”

— Holly Beretto writes for the George R. Brown School of Engineering

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.