Indiana State University Newsroom

Technology students creating NSF-funded educational prototype

July 31, 2013

Indiana State University sophomores Jonathen Akens, James Conners and Erik Gaskey enjoyed working together on technology projects in one of their first classes at Indiana State last fall.

They also impressed their professor - to the point where he requested the students dedicate the next several years of their college experience to creating a unique project with the potential to change the way future students learn about automotive engineering.

Akens, Conners and Gaskey are part of a group of five students creating a customizable microcontroller board, a device similar to a computer motherboard, and a new user interface program that can allow different components used in automobiles to be connected and used. Microcontrollers are becoming more common in vehicles, increasing importance for students to learn more about them, said Yuetong Lin, associate professor of electronics and computer engineering technology. He conceived of the project and enlisted the students to design the first-of-its-kind prototype.

"I first noticed the group in my classes. These three are among the most focused and hard-working students," Lin said. "They are willing to get their feet wet to learn new things and welcome the challenges. These are the most important qualities I seek from students."

Commercial microcontroller boards have fixed components that cannot be interchanged with different components. The boards available on the market also are more tailored to computer or electrical engineering programs, rather than automotive engineering, Lin said. In recent years, he added, mechanical and electrical systems have become more interconnected, including in microcontrollers.

The Indiana State students are researching and developing the prototype "to read and send sensor data from an engine that the automotive department has so they can use it for classroom purposes," said Conners, a computer engineering technology major from Gary.

The microcontroller board is the hardware component, while the user interface is the program that students and professors would operate, such as Windows is for computer users. The students developing the project have needed to learn about some of the technology - along with its benefits and limitations - on the fly.

"The most difficult part is we're so new to this kind of stuff," said Gaskey, a computer engineering technology major from Gary, "We're trying to [learn and create the new technology], but we also have to make it so that it's easy for someone who's not a computer engineering person to understand it, as well as make it easy enough for different teachers ... using it."

A team of Indiana State professors including Lin received a National Science Foundation grant of more than $190,000 for the project, which they called "CULMINATE: Customized Laboratory using MIcrocontroller for New Automotive Technology Education." The project is scheduled for three years: two years to design and create the new microcontroller board and user interface program, with one year to test and refine the board and user interface.

"The project aims at giving students with no profound knowledge of electronics and automation an educational tool to learn how some basic automotive sensing and control systems work," Lin said. "The board together with the user interface should give our targeted users an easy to use tool and good learning experience."

This is not the only NSF-funded initiative in the College of Technology at Indiana State. Conners, Gaskey and fellow student Heavenly Goodrum-Michell also received the Sycamore Technology Academics and Recruitment Scholarship (STARS), an NSF-funded program for students who meet certain financial requirements and who participate in certain additional programs at Indiana State."The new microcontroller board under development has incredible potential to improve the way automotive engineering technology is taught to college students," said Bradford Sims, dean of the college. "The fact that is also being created by students, including those with scholarships funded by the National Science Foundation, is a testament to the experiential learning that happens every day at Indiana State."

Photo: (ISU/Rachel Keyes)Indiana State University student Heavenly Goodrum-Mitchell works on a microcontroller board. She is part of a group of students creating a microcontroller prototype as part of a multiyear project funded by National Science Foundation grant.

Photo: (ISU/Rachel Keyes)Indiana State University student James Conners works with components of a microcontroller. He is working on the project that is part of "CULMINATE: Customized Laboratory using MIcrocontroller for New Automotive Technology Education." It was a multiyear project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Photo: Indiana State University professors Philip Cochrane (left), Yuetong Lin and Xiaolong Li with an example of a motherboard. They are the lead professors on "CULMINATE: Customized Laboratory using MIcrocontroller for New Automotive Technology Education." The National Science Foundation awarded $190,000 for the initiative, which is a three-year program that features students creating a prototype customizable microcontroller and user interface for teaching automotive engineering technology students about microcontrollers.

Contact: Yuetong Lin, associate professor, department of electronics and computer engineering technology, College of Technology, Indiana State University, 812-237-3399 or

Writer: Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or