Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Role of Robots in Engineering Education

Currently, the robotics industry does not have enough jobs to employ all the engineering graduates who would like to pursue a career in robotics. Sometimes this leads to disappointment among engineering graduates who have passionately pursued robotics in school and find it frustrating that they cannot find a job in the robotics industry.  Hopefully, the robotics industry will continue to grow and the job situation will be significantly better a few years down the road. But what should graduating students interested in robotics do in the meantime?

This blog post attempts to argue that students should use robots as learning tools to acquire a much broader engineering knowledge base to impress employers in a wide variety of engineering industries. 

Human beings are fascinated by robots. I don’t fully understand the reason for this fascination, but robots seem to get people excited and enthralled.  In addition to being popular inhabitants of our factories, hospitals, and farms, robots are also emerging as popular cultural icons with an ever-increasing presence in music, movies, and books. Clearly the idea of humans ultimately creating superhuman robots is quite thrilling and intriguing. Let us also keep in mind that robots can be quite entertaining. 

Robots have become ambassadors of STEM education in the US. Many K-12 students get their first glimpses of the engineering world by participating in FIRST robotics.  Children as young as five years old are getting started in Junior FIRST LEGO Leagues, and they can continue advancing through various FIRST programs as they gain experience and grow older. The FIRST robotics experience finally culminates into the FIRST Robotics Competition.  In this program, teams of high school students compete with each other in a high profile national competition by building incredibly impressive robots. More than 350,000 students are expected to participate in the FIRST programs in 2013 and 2014 season.

Many undergraduate students who enter college with FIRST experience in high school take robotics courses in the college, continue their participation in challenging robotics competitions, and go on to build even more impressive robots. Some of the students interested in robotics go on to graduate school and continue their journey in the field of robotics. National Robotics Initiative and DARPA Robotics Challenge are providing many new exciting opportunities for students in the US.  

Along the way some students start to focus too much on “learning robotics.” It will be better from the employment perspective, if students viewed robots as a vehicle to learn engineering. The FIRST programs do a great job of emphasizing this point, but somehow along the way this message gets garbled for at least some students and the focus shifts to learning specialized tools for building robots.

Robots are very good examples of modern cyber physical systems. They contain mechanical, electrical, electronic, and software components that interact in complex ways to produce the desired behavior and performance. In terms of building blocks, they are no different than modern dish washers, automobiles, magnetic resonance imaging machines, and cranes. However, robots are a lot more fun to create than a dish washer and hence much more effective for teaching engineering principles.  

We should view robots as tools for learning modern engineering principles and have fun while doing it! Once you have learned how to design, build, and program a robot, you can create lots of other engineered artifacts that people are willing to buy today. Your experience with robots makes you an excellent catch in the job market. You should just learn to interpret the word robotics in the broadest possible sense.