Tufts University Robotics Academy

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Mission

Too often, students of engineering choose not to enter into engineering practice as a career because they do not see the relevance of the material they learn in class or appreciate the applications of that material in the real world. Female engineering students, in particular, are often discouraged by programs that fail to show how the efforts of classroom work affect complex, real world problems (Ginorio, 1999; Nair & Majetich, 1995). In addition to the problem of perceived lack of relevance of the engineering curriculum, there is an additional lack of understanding about the context of engineering practice. When engineers first enter the workforce, many realize that they must now work alongside people from a variety of other disciplines; yet, they were given few, if any, opportunities to prepare themselves for this working environment in their studies and training. A program that provides opportunities for learning in the context of multi-disciplinary problem solving is expected to help to overcome these limitations of the current engineering education. For example, the physics of the motion of a fluid becomes far more interesting, and relevant, to a student who is designing an airplane. Such motivated learning and, as a result, greater understanding of physics, is clearly of benefit in creating a superior aircraft design.
Under the proposed system, sophomore students from multiple disciplines (i.e., mechanical engineering, electrical engineering/ computer science, engineering psychology (human factors), biochemistry/ chemistry, and child development/ education) will apply to join the Academy and those accepted will be required to complete an undergraduate thesis based on a robotics project, and do some teaching in their final year. During their two years in the Academy, they will work on a team composed of students from different disciplines. Team members bring to the team specialty skills acquired during their junior and senior years through a pre-defined “robotics thread”: a set of courses that introduces them to robotics and how it applies to their chosen fields. For instance, the mechanical engineering student will specialize in robot design and fabrication; the computer science/electrical engineering student will specialize in circuitry design and programming the intelligence of the robot; and the human factors student will specialize in human-machine interface design to ensure safe and effective operation of the robot.
Unlike most multi-disciplinary engineering projects, we will include pre-service teachers on the teams. This is desirable for two reasons. First, engineering students need to learn how to effectively communicate their ideas to non-engineers. Second, we believe that all good engineering projects should have effective education outreach components. Since pre-service teachers are learning how to communicate ideas school children, they can help the engineering students with communicating their technical endeavors to non-engineers through their engineering education outreach efforts.
Finally, to make a truly successful program, students need to be mentored and taught a wide range of practical knowledge as well. By setting up a mentoring program where the seniors mentor their junior counterparts, each student will have individual attention. In addition, by pairing a junior with a mentor who is from a different discipline, one can encourage communication between the disciplines and improve cross-disciplinary communication in the long run. Each senior will also be responsible for conducting one Academy Hands-On Seminar, an afternoon class in some practical aspect of robotics that will be useful to all students in the academy. For instance, a mechanical engineering senior might offer a course in ProEngineer and CAD, whereas a child development student might offer a class in cognition and learning strategies.
Students in the Academy will have a heavier workload than the average undergraduate student but will graduate with far more excitement for engineering and with greater engineering skills. At Tufts University, students from different levels were polled for their interest in such a program and the responses were universally enthusiastic. Informally, one female first-year student stated that such a program would persuade her to stay in engineering even though her eventual plans for medical school did not require such a technical undergraduate degree. Several juniors became so excited about the idea that they are trying to start the program themselves. Many faculty members at the Tufts Medical, Veterinary, and Engineering Schools have voiced interest in participating in such a program. Furthermore, members of the Music Department at Tufts have started talking about electronic instruments playing a role in the program.