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Hands-on engineering

User interface course puts technology in the hands of students

KENNESAW, Ga. (Oct 13, 2017) — Kennesaw State University student Heather Rego sat in the Atrium Building lobby with her eyes fixed on a quadcopter, a light weight drone equipped with a high definition camera resting about 10 feet away.

She blinked once and the Emotiv EPOC+ electroencephalogram (EEG) headset she wore detected brain activity and signaled to a nearby laptop, causing the drone to rise off the ground. She looked left and the drone floated left. She looked right and the drone once again followed. Then, without warning, it jolted upward and clipped the second-floor railing before plummeting back down to the lobby floor.

As Rego and her classmates rushed to diagnose the problem, Sarah North, who teaches computer science in Kennesaw State’s College of Computing and Software Engineering, watched and smiled. It was the first time her students could diagnose a user interface problem on an actual technologically advanced device rather than doing it theoretically using paper, pen and computers. 

With a recent $10,000 investment, the College of Computing and Software Engineering has been able to purchase six cutting edge, technologically advanced devices to give students hands-on learning experience through trial and error. In addition to the Emotiv EPOC+ headset, students now have access to Microsoft HoloLens, HTC Vive virtual reality system, a 360-degree camera and two Parrot drones.

“If you don’t fail then how can you learn,” North said. “For many years, I taught the course without this kind of technology and it crippled the whole concept of hands-on learning. It is good to have an imagination, but when you can’t work hands-on then it’s hard to move forward with development. They’ve never had this experience before.”

User Interface

North’s course is a comprehensive study of techniques in the design and implementation of user interface engineering and focuses heavily on researching the way humans interact with technology. It has 92 enrollees – 42 of whom are in-class while the remaining are online.  All the students participate in a semester-long research project exploring the newly available devices. The project, North said, is designed to familiarize the students with the project management life cycle, an integral part of graphical user interface (GUI) and application development.

Students are divided into six groups, each assigned a device and research focus. Rego’s team, for instance, is exploring the connection between brain activity and remote control a drone using the Emotiv EPOC+ headset.

Students spent the opening weeks of the fall class researching their respective devices and how humans have used them to solve world problems. They are encouraged to think of new uses for the technology. One group is exploring how a quadcopter can be programmed to mimic techniques used by cinematographers. Another group is finding a more efficient way for users to navigate a virtual environment using the HTC Vive.

In addition to the research, the students  have been asked to implement what they have learned by developing a user interface of their own, with many choosing to craft mobile applications for handheld Android devices. They will submit their research papers to peer-reviewed journals at the end of the semester. North said a handful of students will continue developing their applications after the class ends.

User Interface

North said she motivates her students to spend time engaging with the equipment since it is unlikely that they will have a chance to experiment with the devices outside of the classroom setting.

The professor’s approach was a major draw for Tyler Crawley, a senior computer science major.

“Having these resources is huge. It gives (students) tools they wouldn’t be able to access on their own,” said Crawley, whose project explores the evolution of augmented reality. His team is currently looking for ways to integrate their own designs into the HoloLens, an augmented reality device that enables users to interact holograms in a physical environment. The team recently uploaded onto the HoloLens a giant owl avatar that can be seen standing in front of the user when the device is worn.

“I’m such a project-based learner,” said Crawley, who would like to pursue a career in applications development. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I chose to study computer science; I wanted to be able to learn a skill and to be able to do projects instead of focusing on memorization and tests. I haven’t dipped my toe into the industry yet, but I definitely feel like the hands-on approach will be applicable later.”

– Travis Highfield

Photos by David Caselli; Video by Rob Witzel


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.

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