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Robotics Lets Students Explore Creativity, Gain Valuable STEM Skills

November 20, 2014

Robotics Tower

Intense Competition: Students and faculty got involved in the action as a robot built by freshmen Adam Bretsch, Tessa Frahm, Donglai Guo, and Nichola Moeller placed the last wooden alphabet block on top of a tower in this fall’s engineering practice course robotics competition. (Photo by Dale Long)

Creating robots motivated Adam Bretsch’s interests toward science, engineering, and mathematics. That fascination has intensified as a freshman computer engineering student through Rose-Hulman’s robotics program.

Bretsch joined classmates to design, create, and operate a Lego Mindstorm system-based robot that collected and stacked a set of wooden alphabet blocks to build a tower. This task was the final challenge in this fall’s engineering practice course for first-year electrical and computer engineering majors.

“I love everything about robotics—the problem-solving, programming, and working with others,” says Bretsch, whose team included Tessa Frahm, Donglai Guo, and Nichola Moeller. “I could do robotics every minute of every day. It has broadened my horizons in education and engineering.”

He’s not alone. Students, faculty, and community guests crowded around two playing fields in the multipurpose room of the institute’s student union building for the friendly competition among 23 student teams.

The winning team kept things simple and was a model of consistency by being the top-scoring unit through all five rounds. Instead of building towers, the team’s robot picked up multiple stacks of three alphabet blocks and delivered them into designated areas of the playing field that scored the most points.

“Once we formed a winning game plan, we perfected the process with the highest possible points in mind,” says freshman William Small. Other team members were Isabella Evans, Matt Pokoj, and Yuchen Wang.

This is the first step for many students in earning an academic minor in robotics. Started in 2009, the multidisciplinary program has grown steadily and now nearly 20 percent of incoming freshmen state they chose to Rose-Hulman for the opportunity to study robotics. And, interest in the area continues to grow each year.

"Thanks to the FIRST Robotics, VEX Robotics, and Botball educational programs, students come to Rose-Hulman with a wealth of robotics experiences, and are eager to learn and work together on challenging projects throughout our robotics curriculum,” says Carlotta Berry, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We’re pleasantly surprised with the program’s growing popularity.”

Berry helped organize FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional competition the past two years, attracting 45 teams from nine states, and Rose-Hulman has been a sponsor of Indianapolis’ VEX Robotics competition at Bankers Life Field House. This year’s competition had 49 high school teams, 60 middle school teams, and 17 elementary teams competing.

Robotics Senior Project

Fun With Robotics: Students showcase one of the many projects completed during the senior year in the robotics program. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

David Fisher, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering, remarks that robotics help students make connections between computing, engineering, science, and mathematics. It also exposes students to other academic disciplines, working in multidisciplinary teams, and increases marketability upon graduation.

In a robotics engineering course, taught each spring by Fisher, students use aspects of Arduino (microcontroller platform), Android programming, kinematics (working robotic arm), Global Positioning System tracking, physical sensors, and other technology to create industrial robots that deliver colored golf balls to specially designated areas located throughout a football field.

“Robots are the perfect educational vehicle because they require so many aspects of technology to work together to complete an assigned task,” says Fisher. “The students are so at ease with working with robots. That makes the learning process so much more fun.”

Robotics minor degree candidates complete a senior-year design project in robotics, working with students from other majors. These projects have featured creating a robotic base to move large-scale set pieces for theatrical stage productions, a robot that can complete an obstacle course with an operator who is 50 miles away, and a robot to deliver sodas from a soft drink dispenser to faculty and staff offices.

Graduates of the robotics program are in demand for employment or graduate school. The list of companies hiring graduates has featured Alcoa, Texas Instruments, Northrop Grumman, Proctor & Gamble, National Instruments, and Cummins. The program has been supported by Alcoa Foundation, Beckman Coulter Foundation, and Rockwell Collins.

"The multidisciplinary teamwork skills students have learned are highly valued by employers," states Matt Boutell, associate professor of computer science and software engineering. "The robotics minor makes our high-achieving students even more attractive to employers. It is a valuable asset for our students.”

In addition to classroom activities, Rose-Hulman has a robotics team that has participated in national competitions for more than 10 years. These include the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, MATE-ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) competition, and Combat Subteam, which placed second at last spring’s National Robotics League's Xtremebots Regionals.