Engineering disciplines evolve rapidly. That’s why mechatronics — the union of mechanical, electrical, and software engineering — is considered by many to be the mechanical engineering of the 21st century. But instead of having students take courses in each subject, the department takes a different approach, requiring all mechanical engineering majors to take a mechatronics course in their third year that integrates all three disciplines.
As taught by Assistant Professor Gavin Garner, the course does more than introduce students to the field; it gives them a visceral sense of its power. In both his introductory and advanced mechatronics classes, Garner presents his students with a series of open-ended design problems, which he believes suit engineers’ learning styles. “For most of our students, a hands-on experience is the way to master concepts,” he says.
In his advanced mechatronics class, for instance, Garner traces the development of electronics from analog to digital logic. He claims that “If students appreciate where this new technology has come from and exactly how it has evolved, they will be better prepared to predict where it will be headed in the future — long after they have graduated from U.Va.” To illustrate his point, he gives students projects in each area as the course progresses. He taps the capacities of the department’s new Rapid-Prototyping Lab by having students design electric guitars,complete with analog special-effects pedals. A Rotunda-shaped guitar made its debut at the Thornton Society’s 175th dinner last fall. For the digital portion of the course, students build a computer from scratch.
At the end of the semester, Garner teams up with faculty from the Darden School who teach a course in product development, essentially turning his class into a small prototyping engineering firm. Among other projects this fall, students built a “smart” baseball equipped with accelerometer and gyroscope and an automated cup washer that coffee shop customers can use to clean their refillable mugs.
“I try to select projects that give students creative license,” Garner says. “It’s this creative engagement that drives their learning. They have a vision of what they’re trying to accomplish, and that motivates them to learn what’s needed to translate their ideas into reality.”