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A team of researchers from Old Dominion University's engineering and education colleges has received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to design a microcontroller training system that is especially well-suited to distance learning students and programs.

The project aims to make affordable technology-related courses and activities available to students who do not have ready access to the training they need to qualify for high-tech jobs. Blue Ridge Community College in Augusta County north of Staunton and Olympic College, a community college in Bremerton, Wash., will be involved in the project together with ODU.

Steve Hsiung, associate professor of engineering technology in ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, is the principal investigator for the 30-month grant. Co-principal investigators are John Hackworth, associate professor of engineering technology; Cheng Lin, associate professor of engineering technology; and John Ritz, chair of the Department of Occupational and Technical Studies in ODU's Darden College of Education.

Oktay Baysal, dean of engineering and technology, praised his faculty members, as well as the inter-college collaboration behind the grant. "Our engineering and education alliance works," he said. Gary Crossman, chair of the Department of Engineering Technology, which has been involved in distance learning for almost 20 years, said, "This project can pave the way for hands-on opportunities for distance students."

Hsiung gave Ritz credit for mentoring the engineering professors during the development of the proposal. "Professor Ritz brought NSF funding success to the project, as well as experience in working with community colleges on advanced technology education in distance learning," he said.

Microcontrollers have become ubiquitous helpers in our advanced civilization. They are compact, single-purpose computers that are embedded in electrical devices and systems to control operations, such as the on-off and temperature settings of ovens, the remote control of television sets or features of cell phones. Even today's automobile mechanics must work with the microcontrollers that control fuel mix and spark plug timing for engines.

Because microcontrollers are so important to our high-tech world, demand is high for workers trained to design them and put them to use. But many people who want the training cannot take time away from work or families to enroll in engineering technology programs on university campuses. According to the grant proposal, a large pool of potential students stands to gain access to microcontroller training via distance-learning programs. In such situations, instruction is sent digitally from a university such as ODU to a remote site such as a community college in Washington State.

The researchers have addressed in their grant not only the need for distance-learning programs, but also the fundamental difficulties educators have encountered in teaching high-tech material online. "The intent of this project is to improve and overcome the obstacles in digital, microprocessor/microcontroller-related courses offered in a distance-learning format," said the researchers' proposal.

Most engineering technology students cannot get all of the instructional support they need from the virtual laboratories and non-interactive lectures that are staples of distance learning. "Without letting students actually build the circuits and test their designed software on real hardware set-ups, it is very hard to really understand the course materials," the proposal said. The major aims of the grant are to develop microcontroller prototype hardware and software and instructional materials needed to support the teaching of related concepts. Individual laboratory activities also will be developed to reinforce student learning and skills in programming concepts.

"Without a common training system platform, it has been increasingly difficult for teachers to guide and assist students in troubleshooting their circuits/systems and give them proper suggestions or answers to their problems in a remote environment," the proposal states.

The researchers assert that an engineering technology instructor in distance learning programs spends about triple the time assisting students with on-line laboratory work compared with assisting students on campus.

To improve efficiency and lower the cost of this distance education, the researchers will design a pilot program in which students will buy their own $35 Microchip PIC microcontroller on which they can do experiments. This low cost programming device has been used in with success over the last several years in courses taught on the ODU campus.

Customized, inexpensive course materials also will be produced and be stored on a dedicated server for downloading as needed. Seminars will be held to help remote-site staff members understand and buy into the system. Because instructors and students, both at the main campus site and at remote sites are all on the same page, so to speak, the experience for remote students will be more "hands-on," according to the researchers.

During the first phase of the grant, the distance-learning system will be developed and implemented for students at the two community colleges. Evaluation of how well the system is working also will be in phase one. During phase two, the researchers will hone the program and probably expand it. The grant proposal suggests that the basic system format eventually can be used for numerous technology courses.

This article was posted on: June 11, 2007

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