AMP Lab students take a break to play TRON on an LED cube designed by Kevin Lee.
What could students create if they were given 24/7 access to a fully-equipped lab, free materials, and skill-specific mentorship What would happen if you took away grades and deadlines, and gave students the freedom to pursue self-directed passion projects
Inspired by the possibilities, ECE's Bob Lineberry founded the Autonomous Mastery Prototyping (AMP) Lab with the tagline "Think it; Design it; Build it; Own it."
The AMP Lab has been open since fall 2012 for any motivated student with a creative idea and a desire to learn. Current projects are diverse, and include a robotic arm that can mimic human gestures, a synthetic aperture radar, and a "Request a Ride" app.
Learning project management skills
"Working in the AMP Lab is a release from classwork that also helps you in class," says Callie Johnston (CPE '14). "In the AMP Lab, you start with this huge problem that you have to break down into smaller parts. So when you are assigned semester-long class projects, you know how to manage them."
Fonte Clanton flies the quadrotor helicopter that he is developing with his mentor Callie Johnston.
The AMP Lab membership process begins with an initial interview with one of the lab's student leaders. The interested student shares project ideas and gets matched with a peer mentor. Some students also choose to collaborate with teammates.
"You find a mentor that can help based on the needs of your project," explains Johnston, who mentors labmates in software and currently leads a quadrotor helicopter project. "It's a low stress interaction where you can bounce ideas."
Johnston's first project at the AMP Labcurrently on holdwas a neuro-controlled exoskeleton that would allow wearers to control prosthetic limbs with their thoughts. "You go in having this huge, big, grand idea and then you realize this is really hard to do," Johnston says.
AMP Lab founder Bob Lineberry manages the operations of the lab and serves as a "cheerleader," but he encourages students to seek help and learn from each other.
The best feature of the AMP Lab, according to Johnston, is the freedom to attempt the seemingly impossible. "No one thought it was crazy that I wanted to make a neuro-controlled exoskeleton," she says. "No one said no, you can't do this.'"
Lineberry says that one motivation for establishing the AMP Lab was to facilitate student investigation into different areas of engineering. "A student discovers her or his passion by exploring attractive projects," he says.
Exploring new areas of engineering
For William Gerhard (EE '16), a major perk of the AMP Lab is the opportunity to explore disciplines outside of electrical and computer engineering. "I get to integrate mechanical and electrical systems into one complete project," he explains.
William Gerhard is programming a color and location recognition camera to guide his autonomous robot.
Gerhard is leading an AMP Lab team that is developing a high-speed autonomous ground vehicle. After building a plastic prototype of the vehicle, the team is designing a fully aluminum version. "Right now, one of our challenges is designing a suspension system that can adapt to changing terrain while remaining watertight," he says.
Alexander DeRieux (EE '15) is working with a team to build a wireless environment sensor that will feed data from the AMP Lab to Lineberry's cell phone. The project will allow him to check on the temperature of the room, and determine whether or not the doors are locked and the lights are turned on.
In the fall, DeRieux used the AMP Lab to plan and test an automated menu ordering system that he built at HackDuke, a 24-hour hackathon. Called napkis, the system transforms a paper menu into a touchscreen that is activated by conductive ink or pencil lead.
Applying and extending classroom lessons
"The key to the AMP Lab is getting students to do what they learn about in the classroom," says DeRieux. "I was working on the HackDuke project while I was taking a microcontroller course. Not only was I learning the material in class, but I could go to the AMP Lab the next day and apply what I learned."
Alexander DeRieux works on his wireless environment sensor.
In an effort to increase hands-on learning opportunities, the AMP Lab launched a student-led workshop series this semester. One recent seminar gave students the chance to try on Google Glass, explore the development software, and brainstorm application ideas together. "The best pat of the AMP Lab is the collaboration with like-minded people," says DeRieux.
Although there are no set deadlines, students are encouraged to stay on track by sharing progress reports at weekly lab meetings and posting regular updates on project web pages. At the end of each semester, the lab hosts an open house to demonstrate projects to the entire ECE department.
"The innovation in the lab has been to let students choose and manage their own projects with the idea that self-motivation and peer management can be powerful motivators," says Dennis Sweeney, ECE's director of instructional laboratories. "We haven't been disappointed."