From robot cars to Coke cans: teaching controls during a pandemic

In a "normal" semester at Purdue, engineering students in the ME 375 class Measurement & Control Systems II would be preparing robot racecars to compete against each other. But with the restrictions of the COVID pandemic, both students and faculty have had to get creative to showcase their mastery of systems and controls.



Purdue has a long history of excellence in automatic control, from the mechanisms of the 1960s space race to the machine learning of today’s autonomous vehicles. In the last few years, Purdue has reorganized its controls curriculum to enhance the experience for undergraduate students. They take the first class, ME 365, to learn the basics; in the second class, ME 375, they put those skills to work in a physical way.

Both classes utilize the myRIO, a National Instruments microcontroller about the size of a paperback book. It incorporates numerous digital and analog ports, sensors, a three-axis accelerometer, and a Wi-Fi interface.  Using LabVIEW software, students can jump into designing systems with a graphical interface, without having to learn a specific programming language.  As the final project in ME 375, students build autonomous robots with their myRIO to perform a specific task. Traditionally, the task has involved building robot racecars, using the myRIO’s sensors to navigate a custom-built racetrack in the fastest time.

But in 2020, COVID changed everything. “Teaching a hands-on class remotely can certainly be a challenge on both sides,” said Laura Blumenschein, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, whose ME 375 class was her first after joining the Purdue ME faculty in 2020. “Even just getting working kits to students so they can do the project takes extra work.”

“It was a perfect storm,” said Greg Shaver, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty chair of the Systems, Measurements, and Controls area.  “Even in a normal year, it’s a heavy lift to get all the students successfully lined up with the robot kits, and the proper software.  Now, with more students enrolled than ever before, all of that has to be done at home on their own computers, while we guide them through the build instructions remotely... and still make it fun, and challenging, and worthwhile!”

“Our teaching team really stepped up to help with debugging problems and answering questions,” said Blumenschein. “Debugging a system from afar can easily take twice as long, if not longer. So spending extra time with students on video calls was really necessary to help them achieve great results.”

While simply teaching the class proved to be difficult, that was only half of the challenge. What would the final project be? Gathering students around a physical racetrack would be impossible. Blumenschein had to create challenges that could demonstrate the same skills, but be performed on the students’ kitchen tables. “We put a lot of thought into what would make a project that was doable, but that would also allow students to flex their creativity and feel like they had truly applied their engineering learning,” said Blumenschein.

For this year’s ME 375 class, students had to perform two different tasks with their robots: “fetching,” where the robot went out a set distance and then returned; and “herding,” where the robot searched a space and then “herded” an object in front of it. For obstacles, students used whatever they had in their homes, from duct tape and cardboard boxes, to books and Coke cans. “I really loved the different ways students interpreted the ‘searching’ part of the task,” said Blumenschein. “This was left up to their own creativity, so some programmed complex behaviors or gave their robot a little flair. I really enjoyed one solution that moved between four spots and turned in a full circle at each to scan for an object to track.”

In recognition of their innovative work, the Provost of Purdue University recently recognized the ME 375 team with its Award for Exceptional Teaching and Instructional Support during the COVID-19 Pandemic. This included Laura Blumenschein; teaching assistants Shubham Ashta, Miles Droege, Weijin Qiu, and Yuan Zhong; and computer and research systems engineer Steve Kessler.

“Laura was really the tip of the spear on this project,” said Shaver. “Along with our teaching assistants and technical services staff, she really transformed this class project in a short time.  For a new faculty member to jump right in to such a challenging effort, and still make it cool and impactful for the students, is really amazing.”

“While there were certainly challenges, I also loved it,” said Blumenschein. “Teaching ME 375 gave me wonderful opportunities to interact with students and to join more fully into the Purdue community. While I'm sure I would have also loved to teach fully in person as my first time in the class, everything was new to me and so the challenges of working remote and the challenges of teaching the material for the first time blended together. I'm excited to see where we go from here with the new robot kits, and to see what this class is like when students are back in the teaching labs.”


Writer: Jared Pike,, 765-496-0374

Source: Laura Blumenschein,