Robotics Builds More Than Robots

June 3, 2010

There are more robotics devices imbedded daily life than you might suspect, like that vacuum cleaner wandering the floor by itself, changing course each time it hits a wall, or jets with “fly-by-wire” mechanical lifts—foregoing hand controls.

These devices share a remote control function, an aspect that fascinates BMCC students taking part in a special robotics workshop and internship opportunity led by BMCC Professor of Engineering Mahoud Ardebili.

“The whole point of the workshop is to create a device that is fully autonomous—controlled by the microprocessor device,” says Professor Ardebili, "and to appreciate the microprocessor-based applications, which are quite wide, from those used in cars, to airplanes, appliances—in all kinds of settings.”

The students will also take part in an American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) competition this summer, entering robotic devices that shoot ping pong balls in pre-determined trajectories—a task that appeals to math majors for its geometry; to computer majors for its programming, and to a whole range of future engineers for its overall problem solving.

BMCC engineering majors are on track to 4-year programs

The robotics workshop is particularly meaningful in the context of a larger engineering program that prepares students for continued engineering studies.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, 40% of recipients of engineering bachelor and master degrees attended community colleges, and BMCC engineering students contribute to that number by taking advantage of the school’s strong transfer partnerships with CUNY 4-year colleges, as well as with other schools including Polytechnic University and New York University.

Ardebili is well aware of the academic directions his students might take. His own research focuses on turbulent fluid flows and the monitoring of carbon fiber composite materials—with the potential to make air travel safer—and he earned a Bachelor Degree in Engineering from the City University of New York (CUNY), and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the CUNY Graduate Center. 

Students contribute a range of skills

Professor Ardebili guides and oversees the robotics teams, and mixes students at different skill levels, giving them a chance to help each other and take different roles.

“Project-based learning incorporates peer leader mentoring,” he says. “Once you explain something, the material stays with you. “

He notes that some of the students have computer programming experience, and some don’t. “They work on macros—little bits of programming,” he says, “that they put together into the big program. And you have to have the mechanical part, in addition to the electronic part.”

“We all play off each other’s attributes,” says student Karam Rampersaud, standing before the robot he and his team are developing.

This means, some team members might be soldering wires that connect the sensors to the proto-board, while others are writing computer code. Some might be adapting a kit, while others start from scratch.

‘As a team, we stick together.’

“It’s very challenging, but as a team we stick together,” says student Donnell Green. “Whatever you do, don’t quit.”

Diana Lima, who took on much of the programming for her group says, “I tried to learn step-by-step by using the sample code, then recreating that code into our code.”

The result of group effort is sharing the satisfaction of a job well done. While one group of students watches, their robotic device busily follows a black-tape path on a plywood platform. As Siyun Chen puts it, “This is our baby, our first kid. We want it to grow every day. It moves in the right way – it’s doing what we want.”

Engineering skills lead to many different careers

King Zhu intends to earn a degree in electrical engineering, and pays close attention to wiring on the ping-pong projecting robot he and his team are building.

“You’re measuring angles, and how many degrees rotation the canon has to cover,” he says. Professor Ardebili explains that there’s also a turntable involved, that adjusts by pitch and yaw—known to non-sailors as “height” and “angle.”

Diana Lima envisions a career in engineering that addresses the environmental impact of fuel usage, and wants to help make the world more “green,” through the engineering areas of process and instrumentation.

“In the United States, we use corn to produce ethanol, but it’s not as efficient as using sugar cane,” she says, comparing the U.S. fuel processing industry to that in Brazil, where she grew up.

Eugeny Zagorko, on the same team as Lima, says, “I want to work for a nonprofit organization. For example, if I work as a civil engineer, I’d like to work in developing a country’s infrastructure.”

Santiago Malan adds, “I’d like to design my own computers, starting with the main board, and make my own microchips. It would be faster, and use less energy.”

“I want to work in research and development,” says student Luis Rodriguez. “Engineering design is about solving tasks. Given a problem, how do you solve it? Given tools, how do you use them? I always loved taking things apart, and learning how they work.” 

Building a resume before graduation

Since students in the robotics workshop are actually interns, receiving a stipend, they get a taste of what it means to have their skills valued in a commercial sense. “This is a resume-builder,” Professor Ardebili says.

Saoirse McLaverty, who wants to be a bio-engineer someday, was encouraged by Ardebili to take part in another kind of internship, a residency program at a federally funded National Science lab, over the holiday break.

“It’s really basic stuff,” she says, without a note of irony. “We’re transplanting genes; taking sections of a gene from a jelly fish, for example, and implanting it into an e-coli plasmit, which then adopts the gene, and glows.”

She hopes someday to work on prosthetic limbs with sensors connected to nerves, so the person wearing it can actually “feel” things the limb touches—and the robotics workshop helps her build ground-level skills for those projects.

In the busy robotics lab, she and her fellow students work with electronic components at large, table-height platforms, or sit intently at one of the many computer stations. The classroom has a long view of the Hudson River, and afternoon sun highlights students wiring, hypothesizing, debating, handling hardware, and reconfiguring code, all with one thing in common—curiosity, and the tenacity to apply it.

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  • BMCC students build microprocessor devices in robotics workshop
  • They're on track for transfer to 4-year colleges
  • They'll compete in summer 2010 in national robotics competition
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