The Ping-Pong Tower Project
To start the process of system-based thinking early, we use an experience based learning project during the students’ fourth semester to awaken them to a systematic engineering approach. This project is taken by all engineering students at our university. As a consequence, all the students are taught the crucial concepts that can lead to the inclusion of sustainable development in engineering practice irrespective of their final specialization in electronics, mechanics, chemistry….
A feasible toy engineering problem is proposed that includes a lot of practical engineering problems:
The process to be controlled is the stabilization of the height of a Ping-Pong ball floating in a user-controlled airflow inside a transparent Plexiglas tube. Although students get a strong guidance towards good engineering practice, they have to choose the method and decide on the practical implementation themselves.
Pedagogically speaking, the major advantage of this project is that the students gain a lot of engineering attitudes. Firstly, they gain hands-on experience in a wide range of engineering applications: digital electronics, analog electronics, power electronics, control engineering, signal processing, optical system design, and computer engineering all have their role to play in the project. Secondly, they gain the insight that system-level thinking leads to complexity reduction and problem partitioning, and therefore allows to solve large-scale problems that would remain untracktable otherwise. They learn that walking the lines of a systematic design framework leads to well-understood, high-quality, reproducible and reusable results.
In the next section, we situate the project in the engineering study. Afterwards, we explain the different steps the student should take. Then we describe which engineering attitudes the students gain throughout this project.
Situating the project
At the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, all engineering students follow the same courses during their first four semesters of their bachelor education. In order to help the engineering students to choose between different specializations, they are confronted with four different engineering problems in their fourth semester, one in civil engineering, one in chemical engineering, one in mechanical engineering and one in electronic engineering.
The ping pong tower project has a number of inherent advantages due to its broad range of possible solutions. The solutions that can be built
- are a combination of analog and digital electronics;
- use both hardware and software solutions;
- have the dynamics of the system are in a practical range, making it possible to demonstrate instabilities;
- involve no safety risks due to the use of low voltages;
- make it possible to introduce the students to control theory.