Robotics Program Adapts to Hybrid Learning

Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) students were still able to gain hands-on experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite not being able to initially visit campus.

Individual robotics kits were shipped to incoming students to ensure each student could work with real robots despite not being on campus.

If you want to learn and grow in the field of robotics, it is important to have hands-on experiences. That direct access to robots and robotic systems has been a hallmark of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program since its inception. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to change their teaching models as most began operating online only, MSR leadership was faced with a challenging question: How do you gain the all-important hands-on experiences if you can't be on campus?

"A robotics program is not something that is ideally suited for online," said MSR Associate Director Krzysztof Kozubski. "Due to COVID-19, we had to figure out what our students would need in their homes to do the type of work that they would be doing if they had access to the cutting-edge equipment that we have in the lab."

The solution was to purchase and ship individual robotics kits for each of the program's incoming students to ensure the students could work with real robots despite not being on campus.

The kits included a Trossen PincherX Robot Arm, a Robotis Turtlebot3 robot, and an Intel Realsense depth camera. Students could use these to manipulate objects on their kitchen table, run navigation algorithms in their living rooms, and build three dimensional maps of their homes.  These in-home experiments are personal versions of what the students do in companies once they graduate. 

The students first came together virtually to use the equipment as part of the program's annual hackathon prior to the start of the fall quarter. Although remote, students earned their way around the equipment as well as got to know one another.

Once the quarter began, the learning experience was conducted from their own homes.

"Students were able to assemble their own robots at home and then use them," said Assistant Professor Matt Elwin, who taught Embedded Systems in Robotics to the new students in the fall. "I could help them over online video chat, and the screen sharing feature in some cases was actually preferable to me leaning over their shoulder. Students were also able to use their phones to show me their physical setup for debugging purposes." 

Since MSR owns the equipment provided in the kits, the investment makes it possible for students to engage with the robots throughout their time at Northwestern and provides the program with additional equipment for the future.  

As the quarter progressed, students were able to begin returning to campus to work with the MSR industrial robots, though the experience was different than it prior to the pandemic with fewer people allowed in the lab. As Elwin pointed out, that is not necessarily a bad thing. 

"With restricted access to the robots, the students had to plan out their projects much more carefully than in the past," he said. "Overall, students have successfully completed their projects, and being able to do this under the circumstances is a testament to their resilience and dedication."

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