Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Stand-up guys October 15, 2013 by Amy Stix • Published 10/15/13

Hunter Lloyd uses robots and comedy to teach students about science and engineering

Hunter Lloyd had them in the palm of his hand.

His audience, which numbered more than 70, laughed, sometimes uproariously, at Lloyd’s every joke, one-liner and quip. They were right on cue for his every call and response, turning frequently to their seatmates to share in the steady stream of hilarity. 

For a man who spent nearly five years of his life crisscrossing every comedy club between Lubbock, Phoenix, San Diego, and Denver, this crowd was a stand-up’s dream.

And, for the third graders at Bozeman’s Hyalite Elementary School—who soaked up Lloyd’s every word about how he invents walking, talking and very entertaining robots—the funny man at the front of the auditorium was proving himself an equally skilled teacher. 

Lloyd has taught computer science and robotics in the Computer Science Department of MSU’s College of Engineering for the past 16 years, yet his acting background and comedic timing prove useful just about every time he steps inside a classroom.

Humor, Lloyd says, helps students engage and warm up to new, challenging concepts, no matter if his pupils are in elementary school or juniors in college.

And though Lloyd was able to make a living on the stand-up circuit, where he opened for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen, he said his decision to switch to teaching had nothing to do with money. 

“I love teaching,” he said, as he packed up his menagerie of robots after the Hyalite Elementary presentation.

Lloyd’s teaching career has also allowed him the satisfaction of the “normal life” he longed for during his years traveling to comedy clubs, an era in which he found himself at home just three days out of every three months.

“I wanted to have a real home and a life and a family,” he said. Lloyd and his wife now have a nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.

"The level of creativity Hunter pushes for and demands is something that has inspired me. His energy translates across every role."
—Logan Warberg, MSU senior in computer science

In his pursuit of stand-up, Lloyd dropped out of New Mexico State University during his senior year, where he had majored, with little enthusiasm, in accounting. Though he had always been strong in math and science, Lloyd was unsure which direction to take after he stopped writing and performing. 

So he took an aptitude test, the results of which “aimed me toward computer science and robotics engineering.”

Although his perception of computer scientists and engineering types growing up had been “geeky nerdy,” Lloyd said. “It turns out, I am one of those people. And it’s OK.”

He finished that accounting degree at New Mexico State before moving to Montana to pursue his new career path. As a child, Lloyd had spent summers in Absarokee, where his parents were raised, and he felt a strong connection to the state. He decided to earn a master’s degree in computer science at MSU. He began teaching at the university while still in graduate school.

Today, in addition to teaching, Lloyd writes software code for robots, and he said his interest in robotics stems from a passion for “solving problems.”

One of Lloyd’s biggest professional problem-solving challenges so far is the constantly evolving “Lunabotics” robot. For the past four years, Lloyd has advised a team of MSU robotics students in a NASA-sponsored lunar robotics competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where MSU competes against robotics teams from 60 colleges and universities from every continent except Antarctica. Lloyd is one of several academic advisers to the robotics students, along with faculty from the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Computer Science and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

Each team builds a robot designed to ideally move in a simulated lunar landscape, all while functioning as a “100 percent autonomous” robot. In other words, the robots must be entirely pre-programmed; no remote control mechanizations are permitted. Also, no GPS, no compass, no ultrasound, no 3-D cameras are allowed because none of those tools would function in a real lunar environment.

So far, no team has been able to devise a fully autonomous lunar robot, though Lloyd’s team has come awfully close.

This past spring, MSU students wowed the NASA judges again, as they had in the previous three years, with their Montana practicality and work ethic. Placing sixth in the overall competition, MSU won first prize in the “Innovative Design” category and second in the “Software Efficiency” category.

But it was an unofficial—and wholly unexpected—award that meant the most. The NASA judges, who included machinists who have worked on space shuttles and Daytona 500 race cars, were so impressed by the MSU students’ relentless efforts to make their robot lighter and more efficient that they gave MSU a special trophy, which the judges themselves designed out of recycled Daytona 500 car parts.

The trophy, which resembles a humanoid robot, now sits on display at the Kennedy Space Center.

“I can say that we can successfully compete against anybody and any engineering school, including the biggest schools,” Lloyd said.

Mike Edens, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, describes Lloyd as “very creative.”

“He is an invaluable person to have on this team.”  Edens said. “He can definitely think outside the box.”

In fact, Lloyd’s achievements in robotics stem partly from his willingness to constantly experiment—and fail. It’s an ethos which was essential to his career as a comic, and one that now rubs off on colleagues and students alike.

“The level of creativity Hunter pushes for and demands is something that has inspired me,” said Logan Warberg, a senior in computer science who has taken a course with Lloyd and competed on the MSU robotics teams for the past two years.  “His energy translates across every role.”

Warberg said he hopes to compete again next year at Kennedy Space Center.

“We have quite a few ideas that we’re eager to attempt.”

That statement alone keeps Lloyd excited about coming to work every day.

“I hope,” Lloyd said, “they (students) love what they are doing as much as I do.” ■

To learn more about Looney the Robot, go to facebook.com/looneytherobot