Helping a Robot Pick up a Pen

There are times where a pen is just a writing utensil, but there are other times when it can represent much more.  

A hackathon held earlier this fall by Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program was one of those times when a pen was a symbol for educational and technical growth.  

The event, held annually as a culmination of new student orientation, serves as an opportunity for students to apply the lessons they learned during their introduction to the program. In this case, they were tasked with programming a robot arm and using a D435i Realsense sensor to grab a pen. Some students were able to accomplish the task, and some were even able to pass the pen from one robot arm to another.  Matthew Elwin

"People get really excited when they see the robot moving for the first time, especially when it's moving where it's supposed to be moving for the first time," MSR co-director Matthew Elwin said. "It's a way of bringing their coding and abstract ideas into the world in front of them." 

Students learned the fundamentals of Linux and Git, and also worked in teams to create a robotic maze-solving system in python as part of the hackathon.  

As important as the event is for teaching key systems and principles, the hackathon is also designed as a community event to bring students together, allowing them to learn from one another and bond as classmates. 

"We have students with all different backgrounds and abilities participating in the hackathon," Elwin said. "So this is a time where students can share their knowledge and get prepared for the curriculum ahead." 

Elwin was happy with how the event went and said that students appeared excited about the tasks they were given and the lessons they learned. His hope for them is to carry that excitement throughout the rest of their time in the program.  

"I hope they started to learn how programming a computer differs from programming a real robot that needs to interact with the environment," he said. "Most importantly, I hope they got to know each other and learn to trust the other members of the cohort so they are able to form a community where everybody wants to learn and help each other." 

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