Robotics: A Magnet for Collaborative Education

Penn graduate and even undergraduate students in the field of group autonomy and robotics are participating in research collaborations on an unusually global scale across continents, campuses and disciplines.

“A traditional Ph.D. education is very centered in your lab and your advisor with little freedom to interact with others with this skill,” notes Vijay Kumar, principal investigator of the $22 million Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Research Alliance (MAST-CTA).

“As we work together to enable robots to cooperate and do something that individual robots cannot do, we’re also creating new knowledge and training high quality students as the next generation workforce,” says Kumar, Penn Engineering Associate Dean and UPS Foundation Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

“The excitement here is that you’re not doing it alone,” says Kumar. “You’re attacking a problem of real world relevance while also doing basic research among a consortium of researchers such as the post doctoral candidate from Sydney, Australia, who visited our lab in September to explain to graduate students how to approach a certain kind of problem. There’s a natural esprit de corps and competitiveness plus an experience with professional networking that’s very unusual for students. It’s exciting to be involved with the broader research community.”

Henrik Christensen, Director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Institute of Technology, concurs. “Normally, a graduate student is supervised by one professor and doesn’t get to see much of the rest of the research community. The advantage of the MAST-CTA is that they’re part of a large number of investigators working together.”

For Christensen, who spent a sabbatical at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at Penn in 1996, “The MAST-CTA grant strengthens the collaboration we’ve had for over a decade. Our collective discoveries will be greater than the sum of each research group’s area of expertise.”

Funding such as the MAST-CTA also indirectly supports opportunities for undergraduate research. “At Penn, students who are committed to doing research and are good get absorbed into the infrastructure,” says Kumar, former director of the GRASP lab, noting that individual students are buffered from the impact of any single grant by ongoing faculty grantsmanship and research.

Undergraduate Mike Shomin decided to submatriculate into a master’s degree program in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in robotics after working in Kumar’s lab on MAST-CTA-related research during the summer before his junior year. “It has been an amazing experience in hands-on graduate style research,” says Shomin. “And I can see first hand that, yes, I want to continue to do this.”

According to George Pappas, Deputy Dean, Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering and former GRASP director, “Robotics is one of those areas that excites kids at every level. It’s a huge draw in increasing participation in science and technology which is very important for us.”

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Robotics: A Magnet for Collaborative Education," by Jessica Stein Diamond.

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