Interdisciplinary design curricula in college and high school

Fire-fighting robot contest: Interdisciplinary design curricula in college and high school

Verner, Igor M

An Educational Brief


This paper describes the Trinity College Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest and contest-related curricular developments at the college level and the high school level. We discuss the learning processes related to team-based robot design projects and present findings obtained from the contest surveys, pertaining to learning subjects, activities and motivation of the participants.


In the past two decades there has been intensive debate about expanding professional practice in engineering education by exposing students to design problems that pose uncertain, unique, and conflicted situations. Educators believe that by tackling such problems students acquire skills of “professional artistry” [15], which may be associated with the engineering Criterion 3 outcomes (a-k) published by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) [5].

Pugh [14] presented a methodical analysis of engineering practice and developed a model of the product design process. This consists of the following stages: market specification, conceptual design, detailed design, manufacture, and sales. The design core is complemented by iterations within and between stages. The Pugh model presents design as a process that integrates knowledge from different science and engineering disciplines, different types of design activities, various aspects of the design process, and individual experiences into collective teamwork. The model and detailed specifications of the design process provide a suitable framework for the robot design projects described below.

Robot contests present many fruitful ideas for design projects pursued by students in universities, colleges and schools. The contests, including those surveyed in [12, 17], offer engineering assignments of different levels, from a high-school competition FIRST [8] to advanced research programs such as the robotic soccer initiative RoboCup [4]. The Trinity College Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest (TCF2HRC) [1, 2,13] poses a challenging problem that has attracted university professors and students, school pupils, and hobbyists, i.e., to design robots that can navigate autonomously through a maze, find a lit candle, and extinguish the flame in minimum time. The TCF2HRC has increased in popularity around the world, and regional fire-fighting contests have been held in Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Seattle, Calgary, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv. The contest has also provided a theme for introducing under-represented female and minority high-school students to engineering [31, and it has stimulated curricular developments both at university and high-school levels.

This paper presents the educational benefits of the TCF^sup 2^HRC, focusing on how the contest assignment can be integrated in the college curriculum and how it can serve as a theme for high-school graduation projects. Given the increasing popularity of robotic competitions [17] and particularly the TCF^sup 2^HRC in engineering education, we discuss how the contest has been integrated into the curriculum, and how we carried out an assessment of contestrelated learning outcomes.


This section presents our understanding the concepts of constructionism and interdisciplinary design, which underlie education through team-based robot design projects. Following the concept of constructionism [6], learning processes happen most effectively when a learner is involved in the creation of external and sharable artifacts and uses them as “objects to think with” in order to explore, embody, and share ideas related to the topic of inquiry.

A freshman robot design course based on the constructionist approach is presented in [10]. The course revolved around challenging robotic tasks, team projects and competitions. Instructional methods of “lectures and recitation were subordinated to the practical work of getting the robots built and debugged”.

Recent developments in robotics technology and new constructive textbooks such as [9] have opened up opportunities for creative robot design projects to people with limited engineering background, particularly to high school students. Our study [16] indicated that curricula developed by college and high school teams participating in the fire-fighting robot contest follow the constructionist approach. The contest assignment threads knowledge and skills through various disciplines learned in the course and leads to the common hierarchy of interdisciplinary design activities:

1. Practice in performing the contest assignments by means of the robot.

2. Implementation of sensing, control and communication functions for the robot system.

3. Design of electrical, mechanical, computer and other components for constructing the robot.

4. Knowledge acquisition in background technology and science subjects.

In the following sections of the paper we argue that through these interdisciplinary design activities, students inherently realize several of the engineering Criterion 3 outcomes (a-k). Our discussion is related primarily to outcome (c), “An ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs,” and outcome (d), “An ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams” [2].

The key to a successful interdisciplinary design experience is the formulation of a significant design problem. The problem must be challenging and of sufficient magnitude to require the concurrent, creative efforts of design team members. The project should generate new design problems as old ones are solved, offering openended opportunities for research and development by future teams. The fire-fighting robot design problem posed by the TCF2HRC meets these criteria.


Since 1994, fire-fighting robot design projects have been integrated in undergraduate courses and research in more than fifty universities. Some of the initiatives such as [2, 13] were presented at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conferences. At Trinity, the TCF2HRC is closely connected with the engineering curriculum. It has encouraged the development of a new introductory engineering course, supported senior design projects, and served as a focal point for a robotics study team.

First-Year Engineering Design Course

The course ENGR 120, Introduction to Engineering DesignMobile Robotics, was offered first in the spring of 2000. The 21 students were divided, randomly into seven teams. Each team created a fire-fighting robot based on Legos and the Handy Board. Students relied on the new text by Martin [17], which provided essential information about mechanical, electrical, and software design.

Skills development areas for ENGR 120 included robotics fundamentals, software development in Interactive C, use of laboratory instruments (oscilloscope, signal generator, voltmeter), use of CAD packages for mechanical and electrical design, data collection, data analysis using Excel and Matlab, motor control (PWM, PD/PID, fuzzy logic), microcontroller interfacing (A/D, parallel port), and use of sensors for ranging and flame detection. Exposure to hands-on projects improved students’ technical skills including soldering, cabling, and mechanical construction methods.

B. Robotics Study Team (RST)

Students interested in more advanced robotics projects join the RST. The seminar-based team organization encourages the tackling of research and development problems by four disciplinary groups (mechanical, electrical, software, sensors) that compose the team. RST participants enroll for independent study credit ranging from one to three semester hours per term.

Because it includes students from all four college years, the team naturally forms a tiered learning structure in which the experienced students are mentors and where the team grows collective expertise and address more difficult problems.

The team’s management structure consists of the chief engineer (senior engineering major), the student leaders of the mechanical, electrical, software, and sensor design groups, and the faculty advisor. This structure has enabled the development of several successful fire-fighting robots including the 1998 contest winner Phoenix and a successor Bob, shown in Figure 1.

C Senior Design Projects

The contest has motivated more than fifteen senior design projects at Trinity over the last few years. These include the following: 1) capacitive proximity sensor with custom ASIC; 2) microcontroller to DSP interface; 3) feedback system for velocity control of DC motors; 4) imaging system based on a CMOS image sensor chip; 5) ultrasonic sensing system for obstacle avoidance; and 6) ALVIN, an autonomous land roving robot.


Since the 1998-99 school year high-school students in Israel have participated in TCF2HRC and in the local fire-fighting robot contest organized by the Ministry of Education. The Israel delegation at the TCF2HRC included 24 students from five schools in 1999 and 73 students from seven schools in 2000.

The students designed and built robots in the framework of school graduation projects (SGP). In Israel SGP is an optional matriculation subject studied in the twelfth grade. SGP in robotics are performed in connection with the three technology disciplines: machine control, electronics, and information systems technology. The machine control discipline is described in [18].

For example, a fire-fighting robot project at the Mevohot Fron high school was started in 1998 by one of the technology teachers in connection with his graduate studies at the Technion and thesis research in educational robotics.

The school robot team in 1999-2000 consisted of 13 students. The team was divided into five groups: structure, sensors, fire extinction, software and management. The structure group designed and built the robot structure, considering the location of the center of gravity and the need to reduce robot weight. The sensors group dealt with calibration of sensors and real motors, and with the kinematics of robot straight and circular motion. The fire extinction group examined several possible solutions for extinguishing candles, chose a suitable propeller device, and mounted and tested it on the robot. The software group dealt with maze navigation logic and programming robot movements. The management group coordinated the project schedule, logistics, reports, and presentations. The team took third place in the regional contest and shared places 12 to 16 (among 48) in the TCF2HRC 2000.

The 2000-2001 team included eight students divided into two groups of equivalent amount of project work and responsibilities: structure and software. The structure group examined a number of alternative variants of the robot structure and fire extinction by means of physical and mathematical modeling, and CAD. The software group dealt with robot XY kinematics, application of shaft encoders for the position control, and algorithms and software for maze navigation. The team developed another fire-fighting robot, which took seventh place (among 36) in the 2001 Trinity contest.


A survey study was administered at the 1999 and 2000 firefighting contests at Trinity. An incremental survey method was applied in which the 2000 survey cycle validated results of the 1999 cycle and added knowledge to that previously found. One hundred and twenty three contestants participated in the 2000 survey, they represented four groups: junior school students (12.2%, grades K-10); high school students (37.4%, grades 11-12); university students (34.1%), and engineers (16.3%).

The 2000 survey questionnaire asked each team-member to estimate his or her progress in a number of fields gained as a result of working on the contest project. The list specified 17 main fields of study students would encounter in a contest-oriented curriculum (electronics, computer communication, microprocessors, assembly language, high-level language, motors and gears, mechanical design, robot kinematics, sensors and measurement, data analysis, physical field concepts, mathematical modeling, control systems, CAD tools, systems design, robot programming, and teamwork). For each field the respondents evaluated their progress in theoretical and practical knowledge. The following features are revealed by the answers:

1. Most of respondents found that their contest-oriented curricula related to all 17 fields. The average number of students reported on their progress in each field is 89.3%.

2. In most fields the majority of respondents considered their progress to be either considerable or extensive. For example, 83.8% of students stated on their considerable or extensive progress in electronics, 79.5% in sensors and measurement, and 57.9% in mechanical design.

3. Such progress takes place both in theoretical and practical studies. As for microprocessors, an equal number of students 73.0% mentioned considerable or extensive progress in theory and in practice.

4. The progress in teamwork was especially high. Considerable or extensive progress was reported by about 95% of university and senior high school students.

Another question asked respondents to describe their own practical activities with main robot components. For each component, respondents were asked to specify their involvement in various types of activities.

The answers given by students are summarized in Table 1. The list of eight main robot components is presented in the first column. The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth columns present data about specific types of activities. The number in each cell of these columns shows the percentage of respondents involved in a specific activity with a certain robot component. The number in each cell of the seventh column indicates the percentage of respondents participated in at least one activity with the related robot component.

Table 1 illustrates the following points.

1. Contestants were involved in extensive practical work with several robot components.

2. More than 60% of the university students dealt with each of the eight main robot components, with more attention (on the average) devoted to their design and integration.

3. University students spent most of their effort working on the extinguishing device, the sensor system, the mechanical structure, the drive mechanism, and the control circuits.

4. University students were involved in the practical activities less than engineers but more than high school students. The lowest involvement with practical activities was in the group of junior school students.


The Trinity College Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest has motivated university and high school students, as well as professional engineers and hobbyists, to engage in theoretical and practical studies in the framework of interdisciplinary design. The TCF2HRC has promoted development of new courses, seminars, and projects in a way that is consistent with ABET engineering criteria and new school standards for technological literacy. The contest has encouraged the development of a wide range of skills, both theoretical and technical. It offers a truly open-ended design problem that never is solved; there is always room for improvement. Engagement with this contest offers students opportunities to meet in an atmosphere of collective learning students with similar interests from around the world.

The contest may not appeal to every student; some prefer less competitive learning environments, and some students are not interested in robotics. Moreover, the contest project should be considered a supplement to formal engineering studies, not a substitute. Finally, the authors note the need for continual assessment of the contest itself and of the learning outcomes achieved by contest participants.


The authors recognize the many contributions of Jake Mendelssohn, founder and coordinator of the TCFFHRC and Eyal Hershko a robotics teacher at the Mevohot E’ron High School. We also thank the many sponsors of the contest including Motorola Semiconductor Products Sector, Watts Industries, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, and Charles L. Wilson III.


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Department of Education in Technology and Science Technion-Israel Institute of Technology


Department of Engineering Trinity College


Dr. Igor M. Verner is a coordinator of teacher-training programs in technology/mechanics and a Senior Lecturer of Technology Education at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include curriculum design and evaluation, learning environments, cognitive development, constructionism, robotics, and mathematical modeling. Dr. Verner received a M.S. degree in Mathematics from the Urals State University (1975) and Ph.D. in computer aided design systems in manufacturing from the Urals Polytechnical Institute (1981), Sverdlovsk, Russia.

Address: Department of Education in Technology and Science, Technion, Haifa, 32000, ISRAEL; telephone: 972-4-8292168; fax: 972-4-8325445; e-mail:

David J. Ahlgren is the director and host of the Trinity College Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest and Professor of Engineering

at the Trinity College. Professor Ahlgren has been a faculty member at Trinity College since 1973, and he served as department chairperson from 1990-1999. His scholarly interests lie in robotics, modeling and simulation, and broadband communications amplifiers. Dr. Ahlgren received the B.S. in Engineering from

Trinity College, the M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Tulane University, and the Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Address: Trinity College, Hartford, CT, 06106; telephone: 860297-2588; fax: 860-297-3531; e-mail:

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