robots and education [guest editorial]

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  • Robots andEducation

    Robin R. Murphy, University of South Florida

    ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR ROBOTICS IS A HOT TOPIC FOR UNDER-graduate students, along with Java programming, data mining and e-commerce, or any-thing else perceived as relevant for the exotic high-tech job market. The current Christ-mas retail season shows numerous intelligent robotic toys, ranging from Hasbros MyReal Baby to several species of robot puppies.

    G U E S T E D I T O R S I N T R O D U C T I O N

    The challenge of teachingrobotics

    Unfortunately, instructors often perceive AI forrobotics as being harder to teach than, say, Java.The student audience for robotics is often var-ied, ranging from engineering students moreinterested in hardware than software to computerscience students interested primarily in program-ming. Such an audience introduces the issues ofwhat topics to cover, the courses depth, and thetype and amount of meaningful laboratories orassignments. Regardless of the audiences empha-sis, robotics requires a set of resources differentfrom just a compiler that can run on the studentshome machine: simulators, hardware, robots,interface cables, laboratory space, and so on.These resources might cost more, and those costsmight be more visible (and less justifiable) to bud-get-conscious academic administrators.

    The pedagogical support for teaching Java ismuch greater, with textbooks and publicationscanonizing what should be covered, methods,and appropriate laboratories. Indeed, an instruc-tor sufficiently schooled in languages can pickup Java well enough to teach it, but that sameinstructor might be put off by teaching roboticsunless he or she had direct experience with robot-ics in grad school.

    Overall, robotics pedagogy is lagging behindthe demand. For example, only three textbooksin robotics software existRon Arkins Behav-ior-Based Robotics (AAAI Press, 1998), GregDudek and Michael Jenkins ComputationalPrinciples of Mobile Robots (Cambridge Univ.Press, 2000), and my An Introduction to AIRobotics (MIT Press, 2000). Only the last isaimed specifically at upper-level undergraduatesor graduate students without a survey course inAI. And even so, textbooks, despite accompa-nying instructors manuals, do not offer a com-prehensive look at how to teach robotics on adaily basis.

    Filling the gap

    This issue of IEEE Intelligent Systems isintended to fill some of these gaps in teachingintelligent robotics to undergraduates. Four arti-cles describe the experiences and practicallessons learned from five institutions, creating abroad canvas of approaches, syllabi, and labo-ratory assignments.

    In Undergraduate Robotics on a Shoestring,Karen Sutherland summarizes her experienceswith teaching robotics to undergraduates at asmall liberal arts school with significant budget

    14 1094-7167/00/$10.00 2000 IEEE IEEE INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS

  • and resource restrictions. Her efforts showthat any institution can offer a meaningfulrobotics course without the instructorsbeingtotally frustrated.

    In Designing and Implementing Hands-On Robotics Labs, Michael Rosenblatt andHowie Choset describe a laboratory course atCarnegie Mellon University that falls at theopposite end of the resource spectrum. Manyaspects of their course will be prohibitivelyexpensive to directly implement at a state uni-versity. However, their article provides adapt-able solutions such as using volunteers fromprevious semesters to serve as the eight teach-ing assistants needed to direct the laborato-ries. Indeed, Rosenblatt himself is one ofthose undergraduate teaching assistants.

    In A Laboratory Course in Behavior-Based Robotics, Ian Horswill at Northwest-ern University describes how he integrateslaboratories with traditional class materialusing a few research robots. The result is aninsightful look at the balance between theory,practice, and the number of hours in a day forboth students and instructors.

    In Integrating Robotics Research withUndergraduate Education, Bruce Maxwelland Lisa Meeden describe a multiclasssequence initiated at the University of NorthDakota and refined at Swarthmore College.The sequence uses the AAAI Mobile RobotCompetition as the motivating project.Swarthmore has fielded prize-winning teamssince 1998 using this competition-orientedapproach, as has the Colorado School ofMines in earlier years.1

    In addition to the articles, two leaders ingraduate robotics education, Ron Arkin andIllah Nourbakhsh, offer their insights intoteaching (see the sidebars Autonomous

    robotics education at Georgia Tech andWhen students meet robots in this article).

    YOU MIGHT BE QUICK TO NOTEthat the authors in this issue are all roboticsresearchers. But this does not mean the articlesspeak only to robotics researchers. Instead, theyclearly show how an instructor without anactive research program in robotics, but withexperience in intelligent systems, might orches-trate a true robotics class. Even if you are notinterested in teaching a robotics course in thenear future, you might find the articles moti-vating and thought-provoking. They capturethe enthusiasm and excitement that stems from

    teaching a course that involves hands-on learn-ing of challenging, cutting-edge topics.

    Reference1. R.R. Murphy, Using Robot Competitions to

    Promote Intellectual Development, AI Mag-azine, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 7790.

    Robin R. Murphy is an associate professor in theDepartment of Computer Science and Engineeringat the University of South Florida. Her main researchinterest is in sensor fusion and fault-tolerant per-ception for teams of heterogeneous mobile robots.She received her BME in mechanical engineeringand her MS and PhD in computer science fromGeorgia Tech. Contact her at Computer Science andEng., Univ. of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Ave.,ENB118, Tampa, FL 33620-5399;;


    When students meet robotsIllah Reza Nourbakhsh, The Robotics Institute, Carnegie MellonUniversity

    The undergraduate student team has spent days following their gopherrobot around Wean Hall. They have designed OfficeBoy 2000 to doerrands by convincing complete strangers to lend a helping hand (therobot has no arms). Late one night, the students decide it is time to turnOfficeBoy 2000 loose. They type Get me a Coke into the robots inter-active screen, hit OK, and hold their breath. OfficeBoy 2000 considers itsoptions for a few seconds, formulates a plan, and takes off down the hall,turning the corner and disappearing from view. The students use heroiclevels of self-control to keep from following OfficeBoy. Five minuteslater the robot returns, with a Coke in its tray! OfficeBoy has succeeded.The students cheer loudly, then sprint off toward the vending machine tomeet OfficeBoy 2000s first human volunteer.

    This story is particularly exciting because robotics is a surprisinglyyoung field. In 1980, researchers believed R2D2 was several decades awayfrom being tenable. Today, R2D2 is still several decades away. This mightbe bad news for researchers, because robotics has turned out more difficultthan anticipated. But it is good news for students. In a semester and a half, arobotics student can graduate from novice to pioneer. Few fields can boastsuch a speedy trip to the frontier of knowledge, where a truly creativeundergraduate can do something with a robot that nobody else has done.

    Illah R. Nourbakhsh is an assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie MellonUniversitys Robotics Institute. He is cofounder of the Institutes Toy RobotsInitiative. His research projects include electric wheelchair sensing devices,robot learning, theoretical robot architectures, believable robot personalities,visual navigation, and robot locomotion. He received his PhD in computer sci-ence from Stanford University. Contact him at Newell-Simon Hall, Rm. 3115,The Robotics Inst., Carnegie Mellon Univ., 5000 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA15213;

    Autonomous robotics education at Georgia TechRonald C. Arkin, Georgia Institute of Technology

    After teaching an autonomous robotics course at Georgia Tech for many years, I became quiteaware in the mid 1990s that working solely from original technical papers (conferences and jour-nal articles) was inadequate to provide a solid introduction to the field. At that time, I decided towrite a textbook for the course, Behavior-Based Robotics (AAAI Press, 1998), that providesintroductory material to the field far more coherently. In addition to this text, we still use articlesin the course, including edited collections such as David Kortenkamp, R. Peter Bonasso, andRobin Murphys Artificial Intelligence and Mobile Robotics (AAAI Press, 1998). Typically, stu-dents present the papers and critique them in light of what they have learned.

    A bigger challenge remaining is solidifying the courses laboratory portion, which traditionallyhas been independent-project oriented. I am encouraged by Ian Horswills approach (see A Labo-ratory Course in Behavior-Based Robotics in this issue). I hope that his course materials (andthose of others teaching in the field) will be made generally available. At Georgia Tech, wehave provided our MissionLab software system freely for use in both education and research ( and have successfully used Tucker Balchs Teambots (previouslyknown as Javabots) system (, initially developed here. We look forward to theupcoming development of an integrated laboratory component for course delivery to facilitateteaching intelligent mobile robotic systems to graduate and undergraduate students.

    Ronald C. Arkin is a professor at and the director of the Georgia Institute of Technologys Mobile Robot Lab-oratory. His research interests include robotic learning systems, multiagent robotics, and b


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