James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the 15th installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

Learning the Hard Way Can be the Best Way

What can you learn from a bag of broken parts? Plenty, according to members of the robot design capstone team.

The robotics team has spent almost two years developing a firefighting robot and had planned to enter it in the Trinity Firefighting Competition in late March. Those plans changed when the team withdrew from the competition because the project was not far enough along.

“It was a little bit disappointing,” Joey Lang said. “We weren’t quite where we wanted to be.”

It wasn’t the first challenge for the group, but like the others, it provided valuable lessons. Team members agreed that developing a project from the ground up, conducting their own research and building every part was a tremendous learning experience.

Encouraged by their advisor, the group first tried building their own motor controller for the robot — not an easy task.

PHOTO: Student with robot“We learned a lot more trying to build it ourselves rather than just buying one,” said Peter Epley.

In the end, they purchased a motor controller. "I got that working immediately," Lang said. Even that was a good lesson in balancing the values of time and cost, he added.

Sensors on the robot, controlled by the microprocessor, were installed so that the robot could perform specific tasks, such as detect walls and other obstacles so it could navigate through a maze, or a building. If the robot gets too close to an obstacle, the sensor tells the microprocessor to adjust and veer away from it.

“The first time it didn’t run into anything, we were like ‘oh, man!’” Lang said.

The robot’s task was complex: to maneuver through a maze, avoiding obstacles and walls, to find and extinguish a flame, before exiting the structure—all without any human assistance. For the senior engineering students, it was a project that required lots of experimenting and lots of hours in labs.

Coming down the stretch, “we had a bag of broken parts,” Lang said. “And a fried microprocessor,” added Epley.

Reflecting on the engineering program, they all agree that the value of JMU’s approach is how well it has prepared them for their next steps in life.

“I think it has taught us how to learn things we didn’t know and how to work through problems. . . .You know what the problem is, and you just have to go and research it till you can solve it,” Jed Caldwell said.

Matt McHarg agreed. “It has prepared us for the real world. In industry, programs aren’t going to be as defined and as concrete as the ones assigned in school. Problems are more open-ended. There are different ways of going about solving them.”

“It’s been interesting to see the program grow because the classes have changed after we’ve gone through,” Caldwell said. “Being part of that was fun.”

PHOTO: students with robotOn April 20, the robotics team will present their robot and their findings during the 2012 Engineering Capstone Symposium, along with other capstone engineering groups. After that, they’ll think about graduation.

Caldwell has a summer job lined up while he weighs his options, which include a position with a large engineering firm or a construction company.

Epley has accepted a job with a large financial firm as an IT consultant, working as an information systems engineer.

Lang has been accepted into three master’s engineering programs in Virginia, including Virginia Tech. Depending on which school he chooses, he’ll continue his education studying mechanical or electrical engineering. His extensive work with the circuitry for the robot will come in handy.

Building the robot from the ground up was, in many ways, like JMU building the engineering program.

“We’ve learned so much from the doing. It’s enhanced everything we got in the classroom,” said McHarg, whose plans are still up in the air. “It’s the best kind of learning.”

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