SAFE Engineering and SAFE Cyber Projects

Contents of the SAFE Lab Engineering Projects kit

The College of Science and Engineering (CoSE) at Houston Christian University has adopted an intensely active learning model that utilizes flexible hardware and software platforms (laboratory equipment owned by the students), and a series of carefully designed and guided projects. These platforms and projects enhance the learning outcomes, motivate students to solve problems (and learn to be able to solve more advanced problems) and introduce the strategies of relating physical systems to cyber systems.  The Securing America’s Future through Engineering (SAFE) Lab courses provide the foundation for students in all degree programs in the College of Science and Engineering.

Robot Challenge Mat for SAFE Lab Engineering

The SAFE Lab courses are taught in specially designed classrooms with tables seating four students and with ready-to-use fabrication equipment, including soldering irons and other tools. Coupling fixed, University-owned equipment with each student’s personal laboratory allows faculty to mix it up in class, rolling together lecture, group problem-solving, laboratory exercises, prototyping, and shop activities. Student-owned labs also facilitate moving hands-on learning experiences out of the physical classroom and into student housing, the library or the coffee shop. This mixed delivery mode reaches a broader set of learners than book-centered approaches, and begins cultivating an engineering mindset from the very beginning. These real-world applications excite students, build confidence, promote retention of knowledge, and provide a much-needed, hands-on context for students living in a digital age.

Logo for SAFE Lab Engineering

SAFE Lab Engineering

The SAFE Lab Engineering courses are taught over two semesters and provide 4 semester credit hours each (total of 8 semester credit hours). In these courses, first-year students will build a robot using a microprocessor and other components.  They will program their robot to accomplish various challenges and develop a control system for a Smart Factory. This system will accept multiple inputs, in order to control multiple outputs, to maintain signals within desired levels. At least some of the signals will be Bluetooth or other wireless communication. The security of the inputs, outputs and components will be considered during design and implementation. This introduces first-year students to the Internet of Things, and how engineering and computer science can help keep the IoT safe and secure.

Smart Factory Project: First Year Project for SAFE Lab Engineering students: Controlling temperature and water level, building components and system, including wireless control and cybersecurity

SAFE LAB Projects courses at HCU are modeled after the successful “Living with the Lab” first-year curriculum developed by Louisiana Tech University ( This model has been adopted by other universities throughout the United States.  In the SAFE LAB Engineering courses, each student purchases a kit of laboratory components that includes an Arduino microcontroller, hardware components to interface with the microcontroller, a collection of tools and supplies (collective cost of approximately $170), and software, to provide a platform for laboratory and design projects.  This approach puts ownership and maintenance of the lab into the hands of the students. Each student purchases a robotics kit along with a programmable controller, sensors, servos, and software to provide the basis for a mobile lab and design platform, thereby allowing them to work in their apartments, homes, or dorm rooms any time, day or night. 

The Arduino microcontroller is a key component of the SAFE Lab Engineering kit

Prototype development is supported by classrooms and laboratories equipped with hand tools, machine tools, test equipment, and a stock of sensors compatible with their microcontroller. Engineering fundamentals are introduced on a just-in-time basis to provide the knowledge required to complete the projects that drive the curriculum. The course sequence expands the scope and complexity of projects that can be undertaken by small, interdisciplinary teams of students, and provides a mechanism for building the knowledge, skills and spirit that lead to innovation. The curriculum focuses on seven threads: systems, engineering fundamentals, electromechanical, fabrication and acquisition, software, communication and broadening activities. The sequence ends with a freshmen design expo in which student teams complete an open-ended project utilizing a variety of the sensors and mechanical devices.

SAFE Lab Cyber

Logo for SAFE Lab Cyber Projects

The SAFE Lab Cyber courses are taught over two semesters and provide 3 semester credit hours each (total of 6 semester credit hours). In these courses, first-year students will use the SAFE Lab Cyber Projects kit which includes an RPi400, LCD monitor and electronic components to build and code different logic circuits.  Students will also learn basics of computer science and software programming, using the Python programming and scripting language.

Components of the SAFE Lab Cyber Projects kit, featuring the Raspberry Pi

Broader Goals of the SAFE Lab Projects Courses

One of the primary objectives of SAFE Lab Projects is to foster an entrepreneurial spirit through well-integrated lessons and learning outcomes between math and science fundamentals and engineering applications. The first year includes five threads which recur throughout the experience:


HCU Engineering Huskies waiting for students to begin SAFE Lab Projects
  • units
  • basic chemistry and electrochemistry
  • electricity and DC electric circuits
  • conservation of mass, material balance
  • linear regression, fitting, sensor calibration
  • statics
  • conservation of energy
  • engineering economics

Major Projects

  • assembly and programming of mobile robot
  • fish tank: control temperature and salinity of water
  • centrifugal pump: model, fabricate, test
  • smart product: conceive, design, prototype

Technical Enabling Skills

  • Mathcad, Excel, SolidWorks
  • conventional manufacturing processes
  • computer programming
  • microfabrication of a temp. sensor (RTD)
  • breadboarding, electronics
  • implementation of sensors
  • multimeters: troubleshooting, measurement
  • part specification, location and acquisition
  • microcontrollers: measurement, control

Non-Technical Enabling Skills

  • teamwork (teams of two to four students)
  • writing assignments and homework format
  • oral presentations
  • brainstorming, design methodologies

Broadening Activities

  • exploration of global and societal issues
  • attendance at student society meetings
  • service activity

First-Year Freshman Design Expo

Student costs are reduced by using free downloadable course materials. Instead of buying an expensive textbook, students spend their money on their lab. Student teams consist of between two and four students so that all students get involved. Louisiana Tech University has assisted HCU by providing course materials for HCU faculty to use.

By the end of their freshman year, students know how to use soldering irons, power tools, as well as their personal lab (multimeter, dial caliper, Arduino microcontroller, software, hand tools). Freshman capstone projects may incorporate sensors such as accelerometers, RFID readers, ultrasonic distance sensors, IR sensors, keypads, gear motors, LCDs, and many other components. Some of these student teams may work with HCU’s McNair Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise, and develop their smart products into a business plan. Systematically training students to couple fundamentals, technology, design, and product development with engineering fundamentals provides a foundation for innovation and future economic impact.

Student Laptop Requirements

A laptop is required for all students in the College of Science and Engineering (CoSE). Dell computer offers discounts to HCU students at However, you are not required to purchase a laptop from Dell.

Recommended System:

  • RAM – 8 GB RAM minimum; 12GB or 16GB recommended
  • Processor – Intel or AMD with SSE2 support; Intel Core i5 or i7 (or AMD equivalent) highly recommended
  • HD – SSD: 250GB minimum; 500GB or higher recommended; HDD: 500GB minimum; 1TB recommended
  • Display size – 12” minimum; 15.6” or larger recommended
  • Display resolution – 1366 x 768 minimum; 1920 x 1080 recommended
  • Operating System – Windows 10 highly recommended; 64-bit operating system required
  • Video card –  Any low-level GPU is recommended ( Separate GPU, not intel’s built in HD graphics or AMD equivalent)

Software Requirements:

  • Word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software is required. The MS Office Suite (MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) are available for free to students under HCU’s Office 365 license.
  • Upon arrival at HCU, you will be provided with installation instructions for the software packages we will use, including the Fusion360 application.
  • Please remember your laptop will often go wherever you go, so think twice before purchasing a heavy laptop (However, the capabilities of a larger laptop are often useful when programming. Also, it may be worth the investment to purchase a battery that provides extended life.)
  • If you will be purchasing a new laptop, models starting around $500 are acceptable. Purchasing an expensive laptop (e.g., $1,500) will generally not help you be more successful. (Upgrades that make sense: increasing RAM, upgrading to a solid state drive)
  • If you come to HCU with an Apple (e.g., a Mac), please note that software installation and hooking up to the technology platforms we’ll be using may be more involved and perhaps even problematic. In some COSE courses, booting into Windows is required, since much of the software is Windows-based. Please note that technical support for Apple computers from your instructor will not be provided.
  • If you plan to use an older laptop, we recommend you arrive at HCU with a fresh installation of a recommended operating system. A computer service center in your town or a computer savvy friend should be able to help you with this installation if you have difficulty.
  • We recommend you use your computer primarily for academic purposes. If you choose to load a variety of games, movies, and other media files, you may experience diminished computer performance.
  • The installation of anti-virus/anti-malware software is strongly encouraged before you arrive at HCU. There are many free options.