INSIDE Chico State
0 October 30, 2003
Volume 34 Number 4
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Grant Funds Study of Robots to Attract New Students

Benjoe Juliano examines robots that will serve as recruiting tools.

Benjoe Juliano examines robots that will serve as recruiting tools.
Photo by Jeff Teeter

Professors Benjoe Juliano, Renee Renner, and Ramesh Varahamurti, College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology, have received a $346,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to attract new students to the field. They hope to use people's fascination with robots to recruit students, especially women, and to teach them more creatively.

Robots playing soccer, robots performing search and rescue missions, and robots solving mazes -- about $250,000 of the grant is earmarked for acquiring robots that students can learn to endow with these capabilities.

The grant will help fund three initiatives in the college this academic year:

In January 2004, the college will establish an Intelligent Systems Lab, where faculty from different departments can teach students how to program and control robots of varying complexity.

Starting in the spring 2004 semester, a new class, Robotics and Machine Intelligence, will be team-taught by the three principal investigators of the NSF grant, Juliano and Renner, computer science, and Varahamurti, mechanical and mechatronic engineering.

In the summer of 2004, a summer robotics camp for junior high girls will be offered. One of the goals is to attract a greater number of girls to the mathematical sciences and engineering fields.

Juliano said the impetus for the grant extends back four years, when the college recognized the need to attract more females to engineering, in addition to its continuing effort to recruit a more diverse group of students, in general. Faculty heard about other colleges using robotics as a way to appeal to young people.

Juliano and his colleagues applied for the very competitive NSF grant in January 2003, and heard they were successful in August. He credits their success, in part, to having served (as did Renner) on review committees for NSF grants. "It was as if our grant were previewed before we wrote it," said Juliano. "We learned what they were looking for and what they valued." Serving on such review committees is a very helpful thing for faculty interested in pursuing grants to do, suggested Juliano.

Along with the robots, the grant pays for two graduate students and two undergraduate students as research assistants for three years. Ken Derucher, dean of the college, is contributing to the effort by making lab space available in O'Connell Technology Center 431 and providing faculty release time from teaching to set up the lab and prepare the new robotics curricula.

Three different levels of robots are being purchased and will be used by students, Juliano said. Basic robots will consist of LEGO Mindstorms robot kits, a popular consumer product that can be put together in different configurations. These robots will be used in the summer robotics camp and in some of the introductory courses using the Intelligent Systems Lab.

The lab is acquiring five different types of intermediate robots. These robots will include Sumo-bot, by TAB Electronics and McGraw-Hill, which will be used as a textbook for the new robotics class. Sumo-bot's multiple capabilities include seeking and avoiding light sources, following walls to solve mazes, covering various types of terrain, and, quoting the manufacturer, "mechanical features designed to withstand the shock of combat."

Advanced robots will include ones made by iRobot, the company that produces Roomba, the well-publicized robot vacuum for home use. Rod Brooks, director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is iRobot's chairman. Juliano said this level of robot is expensive: Three of the advanced robots -- all-terrain robots with vision and GPS navigation -- are $20,000 each "without any of the extras included."

Robots will be used competitively and cooperatively, Juliano said. While some will undoubtedly engage in contests a la the TV "robot battle" shows, others will be programmed to work cooperatively. "While teaching robots to play soccer may seem like a game, it is an important step for intelligent systems to learn to work together," Juliano said.

An important task some of the new robots will be taught is search and rescue. Juliano said robots were used in missions at the Sept. 11 disaster sites, and the NSF grant proposal directs CSU, Chico to work on building similar intelligent robots.

For all the excitement and curiosity surrounding robots, they are also powerful learning tools for students, Juliano said. To make a robot truly intelligent and autonomous -- not directed by a remote control device -- can be a strenuous computer programming task. Some commands employ fuzzy logic, a mathematical theory of partial truths that is one of Juliano's areas of expertise. "When we tell a robot to go left or right when an object is near, what do we mean by 'near'? Commands like that require some sophisticated programming," he said.

The challenges of creating intelligent robots span the different departments in the college, Juliano said. He expects a wide variety of classes will use the Intelligent Systems Lab.

For additional information about the lab, go to the lab's Web site at www.ecst.csuchico.edu/isl.

Joe Wills

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