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Going for (Robot) Gold

Students build and program small robots to complete this year’s Integrated Design Challenge 

A wheeled robot the size of a guinea pig travels along the perimeter of a bold red circle stenciled onto a lab table. When it arrives back at its starting point, it pauses for a moment, then confidently climbs the short ramp in front of it. A pair of students observe keenly, making last-minute adjustments.

The Robot Olympics are about to begin.

This is the final presentation day of one of the 15 lab sections of ECE 110L, a course that serves as the foundational first course for Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) students and as a required course for Biomedical Engineering (BME) students. Today, teams of students will demonstrate that the robots they’ve been building and programming all semester can perform a set of predetermined tasks as expected. Their robots will be challenged to sense the color, number, height or weight of the objects around them, and to record that data and communicate it to the group.  If all goes smoothly, and all the robots have the same set of data at the end of the task, they’ll sing the Olympic anthem in unison, or perform a light show or do a little dance.

It’s not PyeongChang, but it’s still quite a spectacle.

Robots are challenged to sense the color, number, height or weight of the objects around them, and to record that data and communicate it to the group

In recent years, Duke Engineering has brought a stronger focus on design to its undergraduate program. According to Kip Coonley, who manages the ECE undergraduate labs, the introduction of ECE 110L to the curriculum has revolutionized the undergraduate experience. “Before, students would learn circuits one semester, then devices, then electromagnetics,” said Coonley. “We were basically asking them to decide on a concentration before they had experienced all of the focus areas. Now, we introduce the whole field in one semester.”

For the first seven weeks of ECE 110L, the sensing tasks that students learn in the lab echo what they learn in lecture—topics like signal processing, digital logic and electromagnetics.

“Then,” said Coonley with a grin, “we set them free.”

Students spend the remainder of the semester independently exploring all the lab has to offer, to achieve the goals of the Integrated Design Challenge (IDC). The goals of the challenge change from year to year, so the range of sensors and other components that a team experiments with changes as well, in order to meet the new challenge. In previous years, the IDC’s theme has borrowed from Star Wars, Mission Impossible and Alice in Wonderland. There was a recent challenge that involved two robot chasers, two beaters and one seeker in pursuit of an elusive Golden Snitch.

“While ECE 110L does provide a broad introduction to the discipline of ECE, we wanted it to be much more than that. We’ve set up the class so that it combines technical content that prepares them for their next courses with applications that emphasize connections between different areas of ECE,” said Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies Lisa Huettel. “We want them to be excited so that they can’t wait to take another ECE course!”

The goals of the Integrated Design Challenge change from year to year, so the range of sensors and other components that a team experiments with changes as well

“It was an integral part of my decision to major in ECE,” said Kerry Castor, ECE/BME ’20, who took the course last year and is serving as a teaching assistant this spring. “The Integrated Design Challenge was my first opportunity in college to work on any type of independent engineering project. When my bot performed in the final demo, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment after taking independent initiative towards a tangible goal. By working as a TA for this lab, I was able to help other students learn to enjoy the subject as much as I did.”

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