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A May Term course on robot science introduced Earlham students to an emerging scientific field.

Students Explore the Potential of Robots

June 08, 2013

They were playing baseball and basketball, throwing trash in the proper receptacle, finding light in dark rooms and reporting its location, separating balls by color, and traversing a path to a large wooden frame to locate, pick up and deliver a Coke Zero.

They were, of course, robots created by students in an Introduction to Robot Science May Term course taught by Beenish Moalla Chaudhry, visiting assistant professor of computer science, and Maria-Teresa Herd, assistant professor of physics.

“So much is going on in robotics,” Herd says. “Robots are in so many areas of our lives today. We see them in manufacturing, in the military and even in surgeries. This is a good opportunity for students to learn some of the basics. And who doesn’t love playing with Legos?”

Practical Fun with Robots

Elena Sergienko and Scott Lawrence built a robot with two arms that shoot small basketballs at opposing goals.

“We had to program the robot to throw the ball, and we had to get the correct power to make the rotation perfect to be completely accurate,” says Lawrence, a business and non-profit management major. “A lot of it was trial and error, and we had to experiment for consistency.”

Sergienko, a computer science major, says she enjoyed being able to work with both the hardware and software because most courses deal with one or the other.

Connor Hoogs, an art major who brought his Legos to school with him, says he is contemplating using robots with moving sculptures. For the May Term course he built a baseball robot complete with a pitcher and batter.

“We were given a kit that had motors, sensors, a brain and then the Legos,” says Hoogs, whose favorite part of the class was the five-minute maze challenge.

“We had to build a robot that was small enough and strong enough to navigate a maze that was four feet by four feet,” he says.

Exceeding Expectations

Chaudhry says the robot that Mikel Qafa and Andrey Gavrilov created had a more defined task and more components. Qafa and Gavrilov built a robot that follows a path to a large wooden frame they called the refrigerator, then the robot locates, picks up and delivers a Coke zero to a person seated in a chair.

“We wanted it to pull the tab and pour it in a glass, but we had time limitations,” Lawrence says.

“Our project incorporated every one of the labs we did in class, plus some extras,” Gavrilov says.

Their robot follows colored lines, moves about in a maze, climbs a ramp, finds and picks up a can, locates an exit, and releases the can into a basket.

“I knew this class would be fun, but it was much more interesting and exciting than we expected,” says Gavrilov, a business and computer science double major.

“It requires a lot of hard work, logic, creativity and patience,” says Qafa, a computer science and politics double major.

Gavrilov and Qafa hope to enroll in a fall course entitled Machine Learning, which has applications in the field of robotics.

“We will learn various algorithms that can be used to teach robots how to make their own decisions,” Chaudhry says.

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