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Logan Bornowski ’18 (left) and Quinn Van Oudenhoven ’17 work in the lab of Michael Olson (Physics).

St. Norbert Plays in the Digital Sandbox

On-campus collaborations are fostering cutting-edge technology-assisted learning opportunities. In this, the first of a two-part series, Rachel Mueller ’14 looks at the kind of build-your-own tech possibilities offered by tools like the Arduino microprocessor.

A light-activated alarm clock. A plant health monitor. A hand-held weather station. These are just a few of the projects that students of Michael Olson (Physics) built in his class this semester. 

The on-campus introduction of Arduino – an inexpensive, easily programmable microprocessor – has helped Olson refocus his PHYS 225: Electronics course.

Olson is partnering with Ben Hommerding, one of SNC’s instructional technologists, in leveraging the expanding role of build-it-yourself and other cutting-edge technologies. The academic technology team in the college’s Information Technology Services (ITS) department is working hard to ensure that new tools like these make their way to campus classrooms as quickly as possible.

Learning by building in PHYS 225
While the college takes note of new tools for the future, Olson’s students continue learning by building their own tech. 

“I’m a believer in hands-on projects in the classroom,” Olson says. “These moments force students to think critically and innovate to find solutions when they don’t always have the answers. By owning the project, it drives their learning through constant self-evaluation and prepares them for things that they’ll probably see in their future.”

And while the students enjoy the opportunity to get their hands dirty, discovering how to handle unforeseen problems is a major learning moment. 

“We all really liked the building part of it,” says Grace Schwantes ’18. “It was interesting to build things that are used every day even if it meant we needed to troubleshoot when things didn’t work right away.” Schwantes and her lab partner, Josh Breault ’17, drew on Schwantes’ biology know-how to create a plant-health monitor that measures soil moisture, temperature and pH levels.

Sam Potier ’17 and Joseph Zielinski ’17 echo Schwantes’ response. 

“We loved the unscripted projects in lab. It was a creative process that let you create your own thing, build it,” says Potier. “Since there was no manual, you had to solve your own problems, but it was rewarding to see the application of physics in our work.”

These physics majors built a simple P.S. Arduino – not affiliated with Sony’s PlayStation… yet! – with two video games that tested reaction times: a drag-racing tree where players compete against one another; and Quinn’s Speedy Light Extravaganza (similar to the original arcade game where players try to stop a moving light at the correct time).

“We were really excited to use what we learned in real-world situations, especially when we ran out of memory space and found that the buttons kept sticking,” Zielinski adds. “Drawing circuits on the board and figuring out homework is one thing, but applying our knowledge in creating our P.S. Arduino was better.”

Both lab partners plan to attend graduate school after their time on campus and, in their eyes, experiences like this are not easily found elsewhere. To them, having the ability to learn by doing with the one-on-one help that their professor provides is immeasurable and will carry them far. 

Next in our series: virtual reality, augmented reality and a whole new way to undertake a field trip.


Dec. 6, 2016