Robots Show Wellesley Students the Ropes of Engineering
Robotics Design Studio Exhibition to be Held Monday, Jan. 26

January 16, 2009

Exhibition: Franklyn Turbak, or 781-283-3049
Media: Molly Tarantino, or 781-283-2901


FELIX, a robot created by past students of the Robotics Design Studio
at Wellesley College, can navigate through a maze and fight fires.
Visit the course's project museum here.

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Students have created a fortune-telling goose, a version of “duck polo” and a RecycleBot, capable of sorting plastic, glass and metal in previous years. During the Robotics Design Studio at Wellesley College, students design and assemble robots out of LEGO parts, sensors, motors and miniature computers, and then program their creations.

“Our course is rooted in constructionism, the main tenet of which is that people learn best when actively engaged in hands-on projects that are personally meaningful and enjoyable,” said Franklyn Turbak, an associate professor of computer science and an instructor of the course.

Students will show off their working robots during the Robotics Design Studio Exhibition, held Monday, Jan. 26, from 4:30-6 pm in the Sage Lounge of the Science Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Taught by Turbak and Robbie Berg, professor of physics, the course bridges elements of a wide range of disciplines, including art, computer science, math, psychology, physics, biology and engineering. There are no prerequisites for the course, and Turbak says the 27 students enrolled represent a wide range of interests and majors. He believes that a grounding in the “big ideas” of engineering — such as hypothesis testing and debugging, paying attention to aesthetics and working with systems — is necessary for all students to understand our times and culture.

“Although engineering is traditionally considered to be outside of the scope of a liberal arts college like Wellesley, we strongly believe that exposure to the important ideas of engineering should be a critical part of today’s liberal arts education,” Berg said. “The best way to become fluent with these ideas is to become a designer and a builder.”

Alex French ’11, a current student in the Robotics Design Studio, said she enrolled in the course with virtually no prior experience in engineering. “I was by no means a robot or LEGO enthusiast,” she said. “Yet I wished I knew something about the basic concepts of machines and tools and how they worked.”

During just a few weeks in the Design Studio, participating in hands-on building projects has given French an appreciation of just how important machines can be in everyday life. “I will leave the course with a better understanding and appreciation of the simple and complex machines and robots all around me,” she said.

During the first part of the course, students begin by learning fundamental robotics skills through a series of challenges, including building an “indestructible” LEGO box that won’t break when dropped, analyzing how a robotic vehicle follows a line and reprogramming the robot to do various tasks such as follow a light. For the second half of the class, students work in small groups to design and build their own robots, which they will be showing at this year’s exhibition.

Along with her partner, French plans to construct an interactive, animated park scene which demonstrates the negative environmental consequences of unsustainable choices, like wasting electricity and polluting the air. “I love this course because it brings back memories of my childhood, when I would spend days working on creative projects of all different kinds,” French said. “I am excited to see how our and everyone else's final projects turn out.”

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.