Montana State University

Robots invade the MSU campus

October 18, 2004 -- by Jean Arthur, MSU News Service

Montana State University College of Engineering sophomore, Tonya Small of Busby, solders together a robot for an electrical engineering class. (Photo by Erin Raley, MSU News Service.)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman--Orson Welles would be pleased that a recent invasion of robots took over an electrical engineering lab on the Montana State University campus. A wave of hysteria seized unsuspecting and blurry-eyed, mid-term-panicked students as they watched the eight-inch tall robots zoom out the door of the electrical circuits lab. The robots were last seen heading toward Shroyer Gym and a women's volleyball game.

The robots, brainchildren of College of Engineering professors, are now part of the required supplies for Electrical Engineering 101, Introduction to Electrical Fundamentals. The robot kits came from the engineering stockroom rather than Mars and contained a custom-designed printed circuit board, electronic components, chassis, wheels and motors.

The MSU war of the robots debuts between volleyball games, which begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 22, in Shroyer Gym. The date is near the anniversary of Orson Welles' October 1938 broadcast when radio listeners believed that "The War of the Worlds" interplanetary conflict had begun, and invading Martians spread death and destruction. For the 2004 invasion, the electrical engineering robots are spreading knowledge and skills to freshmen.

"The robots are what make the class for me," said freshman Kurt Wood of Ronan. "At first I had to learn to solder the parts. Once I got that down, I learned how the circuits worked. It's the best part of my classes. Creating the robots makes the math and the lectures all come together for practical experience."

The 94 students enrolled in the course have soldered together the printed circuit board and assembled the chassis, wheels and motors.

Rob Maher, professor of electrical engineering, helped integrate the robots into the introductory course. He realized that eager new students interested in electrical engineering and computer engineering quickly discovered that the first year of college was filled with required courses and almost no engineering courses. So a year ago, faculty and some undergrads developed a small prototype robot with self-contained power, motorized wheels, sensors and an onboard microcomputer chip. It worked. They fine-tuned the prototype and went into production in time for fall classes.

"Teaching freshman is particularly interesting and challenging because it can be hard for a professor to remember what it was like to learn the basic concepts for the first time," Maher said. "After seeing the robot--and the reaction of students who saw the prototype--I was convinced that this was an idea worth building upon."

A Montana Space Grant Consortium Educational Enhancement grant covered the cost of the initial parts purchases, hourly wages for an undergraduate student to assist with the hardware and
software design, and the faculty time required to write and edit the laboratory experiments.

"The students learn to use the standard electrical laboratory test equipment like oscilloscopes, function generators, and digital multimeters, as they gain hands-on experience," Maher said.

"The robots make class fun," said Gabriel Guillen of Dillon. "It's a great introduction for the course, great hands-on experience, and the robots get kids motivated to keep going. During our senior year, we will get to program the robot to do different things."

For now, Guillen's 'bot and the 93 other robots receive their last adjustments before getting dressed up for the volleyball invasion.

"It's Hawaiian night at the game, and I'm dressing up my robot as a coconut," Guillen said. "It's going to be a huge coconut. We will probably see a shark robot and some Hawaiian grass skirts."

The dramatization will unfold between games 2 and 3 of the Bobcat women's volleyball matches against Weber State. The 'bots take over the court for a slow-speed obstacle course.

Contact Rob Maher 994-7759