Building Kits to Promote Hands-on Learning

Building Kits to Promote Hands-on Learning

Instructor: Allison Okamura
Department/School: Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering
Course: ME 20N: Haptics: Engineering Touch &  Introduction to Haptics
Audience: Introduction to Haptics - Public (by Application - Enrollment Limited to 100 Participants)
ME 20N - Stanford Freshman Introductory Seminar (21 Stanford Students)
Teaching and Learning Approach: Online, Flipped Classroom
Limited-Enrollment, Fully Online Course with Hands-on Component (100 Participants)
Flipped Classroom for Stanford ME 20N Students

Goals: The goal was to develop curriculum and low-cost hardware kits (Hapkit) for an on-campus course: ME 20N: Haptics: Engineering Touch and a six-week online course (open to the public but limited to enrollment of 100) called Introduction to Haptics offered in Fall 2013. The kits were based on the “Haptic Paddle”, a haptic device originally designed at Stanford 15 years ago and used previously in teaching dynamic systems (ME 161) graduate-level haptics (ME 327) and research.     

Approach: The course focused on teaching the design and control of haptic interfaces, which use robotic technology to provide touch feedback to human users interacting with virtual environments. It was designed as a gateway course for haptic device design, robotics, and mechatronics. The required background for this course was high-school physics and pre-calculus. Programming, building, and mechatronics experience was not required.  

By programming the haptic interfaces to display physical phenomena  such as damping, stiffness, and mass, as well as other novel interactive physical behaviors (textures, bouncing balls, etc.), we aim for students to develop a deeper understanding of and intuition for physics. Since this was a pilot, the Hapkit was free for Stanford students and online participants. They were able to keep the Hapkit at the end of the course and were encouraged to keep using it and to share their haptic creations with the world.

ME 20N: Haptics: Engineering Touch
Students learned how to build, program, and control haptic devices that allow users to feel virtual or remote environments. In the process, students gained an appreciation for the capabilities and limitations of human touch, developed an intuitive connection between equations that describe physical interactions and how they feel, and gained practical interdisciplinary engineering skills related to robotics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, bioengineering, and computer science.

Learning Objectives:

By the end of ME 20N, students should be able to:

1. Identify the primary mechanisms of human haptic sensing, as well as the capabilities and limitations of human touch

2. Describe the salient features of a haptic device design and the physics of a haptic mechanism

3. Understand methods for sensing the position of and actuating haptic interfaces

4. Assemble and program a haptic device ( to create compelling touchable virtual environments

5. Explain current and potential future applications of haptic devices

6. Design and build a new haptic device

Assignments: After the first week, a weekly video and quizzes were posted on the course's OpenEdX website. Laboratory assignments were completed in class, and sometimes students submitted data to the OpenEdX website.

Project activities and presentations were also required in the latter half of the course.

Grading: To earn an A in the course, students needed to view all online course videos and pass quizzes (20%), complete all laboratory assignments on time (40%), complete a successful final project and give a demonstration (40%), and participate in all classes or arrange a suitable makeup for one session in advance. Grading of Stanford students was conducted by the instructor observing the students’ results during laboratory sessions.

In-class Strategies: Flipped Classroom: Stanford ME 20N students viewed lecture videos in advance and then used the in-class time for building,  programming, discussing, and experimenting together.  

For Stanford students the course was a standard 10-week class. For the first 6 weeks the class ran using the flipped classroom model where the Stanford students watch the same videos as the public prior to the class period and the class period was used to perform the laboratory exercises.

In-class Laboratories: Stanford ME 20N students got hands-on experience in assembling mechanical systems, making circuits, programming Arduino microcontrollers, testing their haptic creations, and using Stanford’s student prototyping facilities.

The instructor (Okamura) and teaching/research assistant (Morimoto) used the experience of the in-class laboratory exercises to improve the instructions and documentation provided to the online students who needed to perform the laboratory exercises without the instructor present. Stanford students were engaged in small group projects during the last 4 weeks of the quarter.

Project-based Learning: Stanford ME 20N students were engaged in small group projects during the last four weeks of the quarter. The final project for this class involved creating a novel haptic device that could be used to enhance human interaction with computers, mobile devices, or remote-controlled robots. [Links to ME 20N projects are here: All the designs and code is available for download.]

Introduction to Haptics Online Course
Enrollment was limited to 100 participants physically located in the US for this first offering and an application was required to be considered. Free Hapkits were distributed to participants after they completed the first week's assignment.       

30% of the course grade was based on performance on quiz questions (with a limited number of tries) and 70% was based on laboratory assignments. Grading for online students was accomplished through uploading of measured laboratory data, which were processed by the instructor offline. A score of at least 70% was required to receive a Statement of Accomplishment for completing the course.

Online or out-of-class strategies: Each week, students viewed online lectures, took online quizzes (interspersed with the lectures), and completed a laboratory assignment. Data for each lab assignment was submitted online. The course wiki could be used by participants to post well-composed short articles about current news in the haptics field, summaries of important discussion topic threads, and samples of code for improving Hapkit performance or demonstrating new functionality and other items.

Lessons Learned:                        

Okamura and her team performed the following research/evaluation activities:

  • Determined and documented the cost-benefit trade-offs in educational haptic kit design

  • Track enrollment and waiting list numbers before and during the online course compare to other related courses without a hardware kit component

  • Used surveys before during and after the course to determine the role of the haptic kits in encouraging/discoursing students from signing up for and remaining in the course. (Student who register interest or download videos without enrolling were also surveyed.)

  • Tracked amount of interaction between online students and teaching staff to determine whether a massive open online course (1000+ students) is feasible with the haptic kits

  • Informally surveyed on-campus students about their perceived value of the flipped classroom           

The primary innovation is the use of a hands-on building/laboratory experience within a “small” open online course with potential future expansion to a massive open online course while also benefitting on-campus Stanford students. The course allowed us to explore the feasibility of using hardware kits as an essential component of an online class. Haptics is an ideal subject for this experiment because it inherently requires physical interaction - one cannot imagine a haptics class without a hands-on component.           

Plans for Next Iteration of Course:                       

  • Continue to track the activities of the online students to the extent possible.

  • Revise the kits infrastructure and course and teach the ME20N again in Fall 2014, and the online course -- possibly to a much larger number of online students -- in the future depending on additional funding.

  • Consider the possibility of an outside manufacturer and/or distributor of the haptic kits.

  • Based on their experience in this course, Okamura and her team will consider how haptics might be incorporated into other online learning experiences that are not directly focused on haptics.

  • Apply for funding from an outside source (e.g. National Science Foundation) to support future research on this topic. (Okamura and Blikstein have applied to the NSF Cyberlearning Technologies Program)        

Haptics differs from traditional robotics in that it can be used to teach a wide variety of topics other than technology. Once a haptic device is assembled students who know nothing about haptic technology could download software that enables them to use touch-based interactions to learn about a wide variety of subjects. Long-term art students could feel the texture of an artwork, biology or medical students could feel the mechanical properties of tissues and math students could feel the shapes of mathematical functions.

Long-term Okamura and her team seek insight into how inexpensive student-owned haptic kits might augment classroom learning on other subjects through direct experience of otherwise inaccessible physical phenomena. They also hope that online students will continue to use their kits or create new devices in self-directed projects of their own design.  The Stanford ME 20N kits will be used for outreach activities after the conclusion of the class. In addition any unused kits developed for online students will be used for outreach activities.

They applied for funding from the National Science Foundation to support future research on this topic. In addition this project allowed us to develop a very comprehensive kit for haptics education with design guidelines that will be applicable to other topics such as robotics educational technology dynamic systems and controls. This is a valuable service for educators, researchers and hobbyists and Okamura and her team hope it will encourage a diverse population of students to enter science technology engineering and math (STEM) fields.

About the Teaching Team

Allison Okamura
Allison Okamura (Instructor & Hapkit co-designer)

Allison is an associate professor in the Stanford University mechanical engineering department and (by courtesy) computer science department. She is the director of the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Laboratory. Allison creates robots and human-computer interfaces that use haptics (the sense of touch) in order to improve human health, safety, and quality of life. She and her students study applications of haptic technology in robot-assisted surgery, prosthetics, rehabilitation, simulation and training, space teleoperation, and education. Allison is committed to sharing her passion for research and discovery, using robotics and haptics in outreach programs to groups underrepresented in engineering.

Tania Morimoto
Tania Morimoto (Principal Designer for Hapkit)

Tania is a graduate student in the mechanical engineering department at Stanford University. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. She is a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. Her research interests are educational haptics and personalized medical robotics for minimally invasive surgery. Tania was the principal designer of Hapkit.

Paulo Blikstein
Paulo Blikstein (Hapkit co-designer and course content contributor)

Paulo is an assistant professor at Stanford University’s school of education and (by courtesy) computer science department. His research focus is on the confluence of expressive technologies for learning and critical pedagogy. He adapts cutting-edge technologies for use in inner-city schools, such as computer modeling, robotics, and rapid prototyping, creating constructionist learning environments in which children learn science and mathematics by building sophisticated projects and devices. His research interests also include the applications of complexity sciences in education and computational literacy, particularly the new knowledge representation infrastructures emerging from the use of computational representations.

David Beach (Professor of Mechanical Engineering)

Mark Cutkosky (Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering)

The team would would also like to thank the many students and collaborators who have exchanged ideas with Allison Okamura about haptics education in the past (including Katherine Kuchenbecker, Will Provancher, Jake Abbott, Karon MacLean, Blake Hannaford, and Mark Cutkosky), as well as people who contributed to the design of Hapkit and previous versions of Stanford's Haptic Paddle (including Mark Cutkosky, Jesse Dorogusker, Chris Richard, Marlo Kohn, Danya Volkov, Ian Connolly, Kunal Chawla, Matthew Weber, Zhan Fan Quek, Nick Colonnese, Ann Majewicz, Darrel Deo, Melisa Orta, Lester Su, Alexander Miller, Robert Webster, Jenna Gorlewicz, William Provancher).


Touch Engineered: Allison Okamura at TEDxStanford 2013 [Video]
The FabLab@School Project:Paulo Blikstein at TEDxManhattanBeach [Video]
Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Lab
ME 20N: Haptics: Engineering Touch Class Project Website
Introduction to Haptics (Limited-Enrollment Online Course)

This course was supported in part by a Stanford University Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning Faculty Seed Grant, the Stanford University School of Engineering, and the National Science Foundation.