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Engineering an Engaging Curriculum in Robotics

Three new courses teach students the fundamentals of robotic coding, challenge students to build a walking robot and make students think about the ethics of these emerging technologies

Duke’s campus has become home to a handful of interesting characters this semester. From a tiny T-rex teetering on the edge of a staircase to a headless horse laying on its back throwing a temper tantrum like a turtle stuck on its shell, these interlopers seem like toys straight out of a Pixar movie.

That’s what happens when you turn talented students’ imaginations loose on an open-ended project whose only parameters are to create a walking robot with a personality and at least two—but no more than eight—legs.   

“There are no exams in the class—students learn by building and creating something on their own,” said Boyuan Chen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke and instructor of Robot Studio. “At the end of the class, they have a working, legged robot and professional portfolio showing how they made it through multiple cycles of success and failure. People don’t believe that you’re a roboticist if you don’t show them a robot you personally created.”

The class is one of three offerings new to Duke Engineering within the past couple of years. Along with Introduction to Robotics and Ethics in Robotics, the trio make up the core of the school’s new certificate in robotics available to both undergraduate and graduate students.

“We’re working to bring in some new blood and get our robotics program up to speed with the best that other schools have to offer,” said Chen. “The students are very motivated and creative. A lot of their designs completely surprise me.”

Learning to Walk

Upon joining Duke University's faculty in July 2022, Chen immediately established Robot Studio, a course that had greatly enriched his experience as a PhD student at Columbia University.

Each semester, he helps about 20 undergraduate students spanning multiple departments at Duke Engineering learn what it takes to design and build a small robot that can walk on its own two (or four) feet. There are surprisingly few prerequisites for the course, and Chen says that for some of the students, it’s the first time they’ve even used a 3D printer.

But that’s okay, because failure is an integral part of learning how to be an engineer. Along the way, students document every step of their journey on video, especially their frustrations. And the journey has plenty of them, as students create initial concept sketches, develop preliminary and detailed 3D models using CAD software, put together a single working leg, assemble an entire small-scale robot, and then teach its digital analog to walk before turning it loose on the obstacle course that is Duke’s campus.

Their tools include 3D printers for the bodies, small servo motors to move the limbs, a raspberry pi microcontroller—and each other.

"It really lets the students lead themselves in this part of the learning process. My role is just to guide them through the journey.”

boyuan chen

“Each class is mostly a lecture, but during the last 30 minutes, students share designs like a studio art or architecture class,” Chen said. “Other students can comment on the designs and provide feedback. It really lets the students lead themselves in this part of the learning process. My role is just to guide them through the journey.”

At the end of the semester, students gather together in front of the Duke Chapel to hold a final parade of their little friends. But it’s not a contest and it’s not a test. It’s a reflection and celebration of how far they’ve come in just a few months, and a chance to get to see peoples’ reactions to their robots.

“The class has offered a unique experience that I’ve learned a lot from,” said Ryan Ringel, a sophomore whose robot is a combination of a centipede and a fictional battlebot from the movie Big Hero 6. “The class has helped me improve in CAD design, 3D printing and python programming, which are all valuable skills as an engineering student. I have recommended the class to many of my friends, since it is an enjoyable and very hands-on learning experience that I think many people can benefit from.”

"When I finally saw my robot walking it was such an amazing feeling. It's also incredible seeing everyone bring in their finished robots at the end and getting to talk to others about their robots throughout the course.”

tyler feldman

“The lectures provide direction and resources for students, but much of the work is left for us to figure out on our own, which can be quite difficult when tutorials don't work out exactly as they are supposed to,” added Tyler Feldman, a senior in ECE. “However, the TA and professor and all the other students are there to help when you get stuck. When I finally saw my robot walking it was such an amazing feeling. It's also incredible seeing everyone bring in their finished robots at the end and getting to talk to others about their robots throughout the course.”

After Robot Studio, undergraduates can also take Chen’s course called Robot Learning, which is also part of the required classes for the certificate in robotics. The class serves as a natural next step to introduce how advanced robotics concepts, such as machine learning, can be used for robot perception and control.

Learning the Fundamentals and Exploring Ethical Considerations

Similar to Robot Studio, a new version of Introduction to Robotics is in its second year of being taught at Duke. And like Chen, its teacher, Siobhan Oca, joined Duke Engineering’s MEMS faculty in July 2022.

Whereas Robot Studio focuses more on the hands-on experience of designing and creating robots, Oca’s class gets more into the core robotics mathematical concepts and programming commonly used robotics software, ROS (Robot Operating System). Rather than building a physical robot, students command a virtual robotic arm to perform a series of tasks.

“If you can understand the math behind the trajectories the robot is moving in, you can also make systems more effective and efficient.”

siobhan oca

“Students learn to understand why the arm is moving the way that it does, which allows them to troubleshoot more effectively,” Oca said. “If you can understand the math behind the trajectories the robot is moving in, you can also make systems more effective and efficient.”

Early on in the class, students learn how to write out and solve mathematical equations by hand that dictate the virtual robotic arm’s movements. This allows them individually to program the arm to complete a relatively simple series of motions—writing out the students’ initials.

Building on these skills as the class evolves, students then take on more complicated movement plans and projects in groups. One project created a barista arm that picked up and stacked cups. Another simulated a one-armed golf swing to hit virtual golf balls off a tee.

“It was a good opportunity to improve my programming skills, which I didn’t expect going in,” said Sophia Simms, a senior mechanical engineering student who will begin working for Boeing after graduation. “The fundamentals we learned were really valuable, and it was interesting getting to work with such a wide mix of engineering majors.”

The third new offering that makes up much of the core of the new robotics certificate takes aim at the ethics of the robotics and automation industry. Also taught by Oca, the class is more of a mix of undergraduates and graduate students than the other two.

“It’s interesting to learn about all of the ways these new technologies impact society and talk through all the nuances involved. We’ve had a lot of great speakers, so it’s been great to get a deep dive into so many different fields.”

allison taub

Throughout the semester, a series of speakers from industry and academia visit the class to talk about ethical topics in the field of robotics and automation. What are the surveillance and privacy implications of robotic systems that are constantly taking in data to interact with the world? How should autonomous car companies be regulated when testing their vehicles in live streets? Should any of these systems be allowed to be “black boxes” where not even the programmers really know why the AI is making the decisions that it does?

“One of the examples we talked about is how pulse oximeters work better on some skin colors than others,” said Allison Taub, a junior double majoring in mechanical engineering and computer science. “It’s interesting to learn about all of the ways these new technologies impact society and talk through all the nuances involved. We’ve had a lot of great speakers, so it’s been great to get a deep dive into so many different fields.”

“As engineers, we have one of the biggest impacts on technology that gets deployed, and there’s significant issues with autonomy as it stands today,” said Oca. “Very few things are black and white and there’s a lot of grey area, but we need to have these conversations and be able to hold ourselves and our technology accountable.”