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Erick L. Oberstar
Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical Engineering Assistant Faculty Associate Erick L. Oberstar recognized a need for greater efficiency in and accessibility to lab experiments for both on- and off-campus students. As a result, he developed a set of web-based experiments that students can conduct from any location, using real lab-based hardware. His efforts earned him the 2006 Harvey Spangler Award for Technology-Enhanced Instruction.

The instructional goals for ME 447 (Computer Control of Machines and Processes) and ME 446 (Automatic Controls) are to provide junior and senior level mechanical or electrical and computer engineering students a theoretical and experimental background in continuous and discrete control theory. ME 447 is primarily a lab-based course that uses custom-embedded control systems that help students use various control topologies with data logging capabilities. This lab experience offers students an opportunity to use physical systems to match theoretical responses with experimental responses.

Oberstar combined these physical systems with live data and video feedback. The system is comprised of three integrated web servers, a custom-embedded control system, and a motor system. The embedded control system is directly connected to the motor system and performs real-time control and data acquisition. Acquired data is uploaded to the first web server, which runs 11 different LabVIEW applications that communicate with the embedded control system for parameter download and data upload. The second web server is an embedded video server to provide real-time full-motion visual feedback. The third server integrates information from the first two servers with other datasheet and instruction materials into a single web portal for student access. Each user interface provides students with graphs of live performance data and a downloadable file of their data.

The system is available 24/7, which is convenient for students on campus and even more valuable for those taking courses from home. Students taking the course through the Credit Courses at a Distance say the ability to conduct the experiments remotely has been a big help to them in balancing coursework with full-time jobs and family life.