search index home contacts help
~Wellesley Robotics Class Combines Science and Art to Make Magic ~

For immediate release:
January 18, 2002

Arlie Corday,
781-283-3321 or 2373

WELLESLEY, Mass. - The study of robotics often ends in testy competitions pitting machine against machine, all doing the same thing: say, tossing a ball into a hoop. But Wellesley College students are developing a different class of robots.

These mechanical marvels are part science, part art, and entirely individual. Wellesley's Robotic Design Studio is engineering with a real imagination. Taught during January "Wintersession," the course introduces students to engineering principles as they design and assemble robots using LEGO parts, sensors, motors and tiny computers.

They learn fundamental skills by studying and modifying a simple robot known as SciBorg. Then, working in small teams, they design and build their own robots for display at a Robot Exhibition. These projects tie together aspects of a surprisingly wide range of disciplines, including computer science, physics, math, biology, psychology, engineering and art. The robots are limited only by the creative minds that envision them.

In Wellesley's "hall of fame," for example, on display in the Science Center and on the web, you can see a robotic "Wizard of Oz," complete with falling house, dancing munchkins and a dying witch; a Godzilla who goes up against an equally robotic building; and a "A Day in the Park" with automated twittering birds, girl on a swing, fish swimming in a pond and a puppet show.

The Robotics Design Studio's 33 students will show off their creations on Thursday, Jan. 24, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Sage Lounge of the Wellesley College Science Center. The event, free and open to the public, is expected to draw hundreds of spectators, including local schoolchildren who thrill each year to see the new crop of robots.

One key to the success of the robotics class is its emphasis on creativity, not competition. "Our exhibition is non-competitive, unlike most robotic contests," said Franklyn Turbak, assistant professor of computer science, who teaches the course with physics professor Robbie Berg. "Students are allowed to show their creativity in a way that is not typically allowed in a competitive event."

During a recent classroom project on robotic vehicles, Berg organized a race to determine the fastest car. "Has anyone seen BattleBots on TV?" he asked. "Well, we're not doing that here." Instead of robotic warfare, the goal is to foster enthusiasm and ingenuity.

Miranda Paris, a junior from Monroe, Conn., majoring on English and minoring art studies at Wellesley, was attracted to robotics for several reasons. "I'm obviously in a very different line of study," she said, "but there's an element of design in this that I like too. Beyond that, now I can see the utility and design behind so many things."

A neuroscience major, Melissa Chu, a junior from Salem, N.H., agreed. "Robotics is cool because you learn about the basics of everyday things and how they work: thermostats, light sensors, motion sensors like you see in garage door openers. You develop an idea about how things work."

If earlier projects are any indication, this year's robots will be as unique as each young woman who creates them. One student, inspired by a love of weaving, created a robotic loom. Another, fascinated by the college's population of furry creatures, devised a "squirrel trap." A student with a sweet tooth devised a candy-sorting machine.

"The course is based on a learning theory called constructionism," Turbak said. "The idea is, people learn best when they are actively involved in creating things they care about."

Along the way, these robot creators absorb a new world of learning. "We're introducing students to the ideas of engineering," Berg said. "It's something that is typically not a part of a liberal-arts education. But you can learn a lot by building things that interest you."

For more information, including photos and videos of robots, go to the online Robotic Design Studio museum at



Return to the Office for Public Information Homepage

Return to the Wellesley College Homepage

  • Office for Public Information
  • Date Modified: Jan. 18, 2002
search index home contacts help