James Madison University

JMU Revamps Lab for New Minor

By: Hannah Austin
Posted: April 8, 2013

PHOTO: Nathan Sprague and studentA baby humanoid robot that slowly learns language; aquatic robots capable of repairing coral reef damage; a chameleon robot that changes color to blend in with its surroundings – although these may sound like plot points from a science fiction movie, they are actually recent news headlines. Technological developments have allowed the field of robotics to grow exponentially over the last two decades, and today many employment opportunities exist for graduates who are interested in “building robots.” James Madison University has also experienced increased  robotic activity in recent years, leading them to establish an inter-disciplinary Robotics minor, available for registration in fall 2013. With the new collaborative minor comes a need for shared space and access to resources across disciplines, and plans are currently underway for a revamped “Robotics Lab,” located on the second floor of the Health and Human Services building.

Dr. Nathan Sprague has been teaching in the Computer Science Department at JMU for two years, and explained the necessity of a shared lab: “The original idea was that it would be beneficial to have different departments – Computer Science, Physics, Mathematics, Engineering, and ISAT – interacting and cooperating on robotic projects. There was already so much scattered robotic activity going on at JMU that we needed to find a way to bring it all together, to share knowledge, ideas, and resources.”

The room currently used for various robotic activities – originally built for the Nursing Department – will require modifications to fully support its new role. While a robotics lab does not need the multiple hand-sinks or outlets for gas now found on site, renovations are still being planned. Also still under deliberation are the types of resources that will be found within the room. The lab was originally outfitted with a gifted assortment of basic materials from the Science Applications International Corporation, most of which has already been used by the three groups who currently use the space: existing robotics students, the JMU Robotics Club, and Engineering seniors who are working on capstone projects.

The Robotics minor will be available for declaration in fall 2013, but some students have already begun working towards projected curriculum requirements. Sprague is currently teaching a pilot class called CS 480: Autonomous Robots, which will be one of two core courses for the Robotics minor. His course objectives focus on software and programming robots to be intelligent, while the second core course, PHYS 386: Robotic Structure and Theory, is concerned with the actual hard wiring of robots.

The class shares many of its materials with the JMU Robotics Club, a group that gathers every Monday night at 6pm to network, share knowledge, and practice their programming skills.

Senior Computer Science major Glenn Barker has been a part of the club for two semesters, and explained, “We use pre-designed robotics kits and put them together ourselves, so we don’t do a whole lot of ‘putting together circuits.’ Our focus is centered in what we can program the robots to do, rather than designing new ones. In many computer science classes, student projects exist in their own little world, designed to do exactly one type of thing within a specific set of parameters. Robotics allows you to break out of that and actually program in the physical world.” 

While club members do not currently build circuits, that could change with increased involvement from engineering students, whose main interest lies in building functional robots. There are two engineering senior capstone projects currently using the space. The first student team consists of Kritika Vayur, Pavan Panjeti, and Patrick Southerly, who for two years have been working on the development of a robotic teaching kit for high school students. The second team, Brian Bojarski, Evan Brown, Blake Lumpkin, John Quackenbush, and Farrell Robinson, are designing and developing a robotic platform capable of traveling across a variety of terrains, with the end goal of photographing bears in the Shenandoah National Park.

PHOTO: Nathan Sprague and studentBojarski is an Engineering junior pursuing a Mathematics minor, and plans to declare Robotics as a second minor in the fall. He said: “I have loved building, programing, and tinkering with robots since I was young. I love the automation that robots can provide, and find great satisfaction from programing something on a computer and seeing it come to life. I think robots are especially great in environments where humans are not meant to be. Both projects I am currently working on – my senior capstone project and a competition through the American Society of Mechanical Engineers – work to meet this goal. The capstone project will be completed in May 2014, and hopefully will be able to capture bears in their natural habitat. The competition challenge is modeled after the disaster in Fukushima, and we are attempting to build a robot that would be able to go into an area and measure levels of radioactivity.” 

Sprague shares Bojarski’s enthusiasm for robots, and notes that the field needs political and social scholars in addition to scientists and mathematicians:
“I do not think people appreciate the extent to which things that people have traditionally done are now being automated. We are at an inflection point, where the robots are getting better, the algorithms are getting better, the science is getting better to the point where many things that were infeasible ten years ago are now actually quite feasible. Personally, I think we are in the midst of an autonomous robotics boom. It is a great area to be in from a professional point of view, and clearly a good thing that students at JMU are in on that movement. However, JMU also needs students who will think through the implications of robotics – this is going to change the way that everyone lives, and we are going to have to re-structure the way the economy works, as well as deal with some major ethical concerns. In a world where robots do most of the work, what will people do? These are important issues to be thinking about, for science, for JMU, for everyone; and for that reason, I am very excited about the increased interest and activity in robotics on our campus.”

Learn more about the JMU Robotics Club


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