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
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 http://cs.wellesley.edu/rds/rds02/museum.html.