MSR Orientation Culminates With Three-Day Hackathon

Students get first-hand experience with the robotics concepts they will learn throughout the year

Students participate in the MSR orientation hackathon in 2017.Students participate in the MSR orientation hackathon in 2017.

Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program kicked off its two-week orientation boot camp for new students earlier this month. The day-to-day activities ranged from traditional lectures on basics of the program to programming challenges to after-hours social trips and networking opportunities in Evanston and downtown Chicago.

The highlight of the two-week session, though, was the three-day hackathon at the conclusion of the boot camp.

“In the spirit of a hackathon, students work in small teams to completely build and program a prototype robotic system capable of performing a specific task,” said Associate Director Jarvis Schultz. “The scope of the project is relatively narrow, and much of the hardware they need is provided, but they are given very little instruction  on how exactly to complete the task.”

The goal of the hackathon was to expose the students to a wide variety of robotics concepts in an unstructured way where they naturally discover which new concepts they will need to investigate in order to complete the task.

The work is intense and fast-paced, said Schultz, but nearly every team ended up with a system that was at least close to performing the desired task.

“The hackathon jump-starts their learning of many concepts they will encounter throughout the program,” he said, “and it serves as a bonding experience for the members of the cohort.”

All students in the MSR program received Linux laptops, and several days of the boot camp were dedicated to training the students to work with the machines. Specific topics covered include:

  • Setting up and customizing the laptop

  • Version control using Git

  • A crash course in Python

  • A primer on relevant concepts of a Linux operating system 

Students were also able to get a jump-start on their project portfolio, which is a graduation requirement for all MSR students. Part of the boot camp was dedicated to using GitHub pages and a custom template to build out a first draft of their portfolios.

“This not only gets them thinking about their portfolios, but it also provides an easy-to-use and free option for creating and hosting their portfolios,” Schultz said. “Moreover, this also provides the students a chance to practice using the Linux command line and Git.”

Samples of past student portfolios can be found below:

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