(668d) Use of Arduino Microcontrollers in Chemical Engineering Curricula

Butterfield, A., University of Utah

While the proper collection and analysis of real-world data using sensors, microcontrollers, and computer software are vital chemical engineering skills, most textbook problems given to our students assume data are obtained properly and will give no indication of the sort of error inevitable in physical measurements. Hands-on use of actuators and sensors in chemical engineering curricula is typically reserved for junior or senior students in unit operations or process control laboratories.  Such a delay in incorporation of real-world data is in part due to the expense and complications found in giving students access to microcontrollers and sensors.  To overcome such hurdles, we have introduced Arduino microcontrollers into our freshman design laboratory and have begun incorporating them into the remainder of our curriculum.

Arduino Uno boards are open-sourced, inexpensive ($23), and flexible microcontrollers.  They have six analog inputs, and fourteen digital inputs/outputs, six of which may be pulse width modulated outputs and used as analog outputs with minimal additional circuitry.  Each board may operate alone, using only its onboard compiler. Alternatively, they may be controlled through a USB cord using the Matlab programming language, which is used throughout our curriculum.

In order to train our students on the use of Arduino boards, we have created a body of publicly available teaching materials and instructional screencasts.  As a result, we have been able to use these microcontrollers as a key component of our freshman design laboratory.  Student teams in this course use Matlab and Arduino boards in a series of design competitions involving a wide range of core chemical engineering concepts.  By the end of the first year in our program each student  is capable of using these boards with Matlab on department computers or on their own laptop to take a wide variety of physical measurements.  This new student skill has opened up a range of novel active and collaborative projects for many other core chemical engineering courses, and we have begun to bring hands-on design projects based on the Arduino boards into upper division courses. 

We have also amassed a large collection of inexpensive sensors that may work in conjunction with Arduino boards and we have assessed them for pedagogical use.  Such sensors may be used in a wide range of chemical engineering courses, and may measure a wide variety of properties, such as: pressure, temperature, humidity, ethanol and carbon monoxide concentration, light intensity, and so on.  Teaching modules involving the characterization of mass and heat transfer, reaction kinetics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and microbial growth have been developed using the Arduino platform.

The results from this work have been wide reaching.  Student survey responses regarding projects involving these microcontrollers have been overwhelmingly positive.  Faculty members are very receptive to bringing such hands-on projects into our core courses, once the foundational instruction on Arduino boards has been established in our freshmen class. Lastly, the Arduino boards have become a vital component of our department’s outreach efforts, finding use in summer camps and K-12 visits.