Making More Than Just Robots

Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) students reflect on the "maker" culture that exists within the program and among its alumni.

Each student who has enrolled in Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program has done so for specific reasons. Some students are drawn to the small cohort size, while others enjoy the relative shortness of the one-year program.

That being said, in a survey of past and present MSR students, an overwhelming majority said the most appealing part of the program is its project-based curriculum. MSR students like to take the lessons they learn in the classroom and use them to create things, and that desire extends beyond the classroom.

"I usually make small scripts to experiment with concepts we've learned in class," said current student Ian Davis. "Sometimes I will create or find 3D models of things that I'd like to print with the equipment in the lab."

Other MSR students used what they learned in the classroom to develop touch-sensor assisted grasping for robots or developed learning manipulation processes using reinforcement learning algorithms.

There also have been more extreme examples, such as:

  • 3D printing a container in the shape of an apple
  • Developing computer vision software for counting teeth in excavator buckets (so companies can avoid damages be teeth while crushing equipment
  • Writing code to connect a garage door to a cell phone
  • Creating a new interface for Spotify
  • Building an electric bike
  • Creating a dancing lamp

In some ways, this creation culture resembles a startup environment, although the stakes are obviously different.

"A lot of parallels could be drawn between the cultures, but the outcomes and the risk make them worlds apart," said Nate Kaiser (MSR '17), who currently works as a robotic software development engineer at Zoox, an autonomous vehicle startup in San Francisco. "If you do a 'mediocre' job in MSR, you come out with OK grades and a degree, whereas a 'mediocre' performance at a startup means you're soon out of a job."

That being said, many students saw similarities in the cultures and even viewed MSR as a way to prepare for life working at a startup in the ever-evolving robotics industry.

"We start out with the minimal but essential direction in the development of a minimum viable product," said current student William Spies. "Over time, we determine what investments to make in that product and how to demonstrate and sell the capabilities of the product."