Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences:

Going Hands-On to Captivate Students.

Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Case Study “If presented properly, an engineering course could provoke some science-fiction aspects of robotics to motivate students,” suggests Assistant Professor Dr. Robert Wood. Professor Wood teaches the undergraduate Introduction to Robotics course in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

Recently feted by President Obama with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, Professor Wood understands motivation, especially as it pertains to the next generation of robotics engineers.

In an article he wrote for the industry publication Robotics & Automation, Professor Wood observed: “Robotics education at the undergraduate level is most effective as a coupling between theoretical concepts and tangible experiments. Making this connection effective requires a pragmatic way of applying the traditional robotic material to exciting laboratory exercises.” Put simply, it is about conducting real, applied robotics experiments while simultaneously studying the principals behind them. It is something Quanser has also observed many times: students, especially modern students raised surrounded by technology, are captivated by hands-on experiments.

According to Harvard’s website, the Introduction to Robotics course provides “experience with industrial robot programming and robot simulation and control.” For the practical side of the course, Professor Wood needed a multiple Degree of Freedom (DOF) robot. He could have built the robot and interface himself, but noted: “if somebody has already done it, it is much better to buy it than to reinvent the wheel.” Nonetheless, Professor Wood had an important concern: “I didn't want to teach students with some proprietary motion description language or interface that doesn't really give them much.” Instead, he believed they needed open-ended architecture software and “tools they are already comfortable with, tools they were exposed to in other engineering courses; MATLAB™, for example.”

In his Robotics & Automation article, Professor Wood succinctly introduces the experiment: “the six Degrees of Freedom (DOF) open-architecture robot from Quanser. This system consists of a 5 DOF CRS CataLyst-5 from Thermo Electron Corporation mounted to a linear track (for the sixth axis). The existing CRS controller is supplemented with a Quanser control board. This allows the user to switch between the industrial controller and an open-architecture controller in which the user has access to everything from high-level commands to individual joint signals. The open-architecture configuration uses a MATLAB™/ Simulink™ interface that includes libraries for common functions such as kinematics and control.”

It was the open-architecture controller that convinced Professor Wood to choose Quanser’s experiment. Quanser offers a turn-key solution for switching the robot seamlessly to fully-open architecture. The solution uses its QUARC real-time control software (formerly WinCon) and Q8 Hardware-in-the-Loop Control Board to provide remarkable control flexibility. In addition to the CRS CataLyst-5, Quanser’s QUARC software allows students and researchers to seamlessly interface with various robots including KUKA, SensAble PHANTOM® and Mitsubishi PA10.

Professor Wood was certainly familiar with some of Quanser’s solutions for robotics and mechatronics. In fact, he uses a Quanser Q8 board in his research lab. “I was familiar with the fact that Quanser makes educational tools and when I was searching for an educational robotic arm I just checked with them.”

Now students using the CRS Robot can design any control strategy they wish, by using MATLAB™/ Simulink™ and running it on a PC in real time with Quanser’s QUARC software and Q8 data acquisition board. “The students seemed to get a great deal of insight from programming the arm to do various tasks,” observed Professor Wood.

Ultimately, the turn-key solution provided by Quanser allows Professor Wood’s robotics class to focus on rapidly prototyping control strategies because monotonous coding and writing drivers is automated through QUARC – so students learn control and robotics concepts and implement the theory. As the next generation of robotics engineers goes on to do graduate work, they will be able to function in the familiar MATLAB™/ Simulink™ environment QUARC provides and work with tools they are comfortable with.

Professor Wood reports that the hands-on course in robotics using the 5 DOF Open Architecture Robot was a real success, saying: “the robotics course was a hit! Being a hit is important. Engineering courses have to attract students from other departments, “just as they are attracted to economics and the sciences. So yes,” he says, “courses like this are certainly very interesting to undergraduates.”
Dr. Robert Wood is the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He is founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab which leverages expertise in microfabrication for the development of biologically-inspired robots with feature sizes on the micrometer to centimeter scale. His current research interests include new micro- and meso-scale manufacturing techniques, fluid mechanics of low Reynolds number flapping wings, control of sensor-limited and computation-limited systems, active soft materials, and morphable soft-bodied robots. He is the winner of multiple awards for his work, including the DARPA Young Faculty Award, NSF Career Award, and multiple best paper awards. In 2010 Wood received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama for his work in microrobotics. In 2012 he was selected for the Alan T. Waterman award, the National Science Foundation's most prestigious early career award.
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