Ready to Roomba in record time

“Sensing in Animals and Robots” is a biology course where students learn the fundamentals of how behavior is guided by senses, in both animals and robots. The second half of the teaching effort this semester was dedicated to having the 12 students enrolled in the course experiment with robots (i.e., repurposed Roomba robots) to learn how to program them to approach light, heat and sound stimuli, while avoiding obstacles. 

It’s normally a hands-on course that required a newly designed hands-off approach when the university suspended in-person teaching, says assistant professor Dieter Vanderelst, a research biologist who has a joint appointment in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Combined brainpower, however, rapidly tackled the unexpected conundrum; professor Vanderelst co-teaches the course with biological scientists Stephanie Rollmann, professor, and John Layne, associate professor, in the College of Arts and Sciences.  

“We weighed different options. Eventually, we agreed on trying to set up a system to maintain students' opportunity for real-time experimentation,” Vanderelst says, by setting up a system whereby the two to three students in each group use software that controls a laptop in the lab collaboratively. 

The computer runs the code, controlling the robot over a local wifi network. Students get feedback about the behavior of the robot through a webcam. Only the three instructors are present in the robotics room, observing social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment; being physically present allows the instructors to modify the sensors or move the robots as required (and catch them when they run off). 

“We also support the students while they are writing their code. We can see and edit the code of the students,” says Vanderelst. 

The team put this system together in a timely response to the current situation, he says, just using the equipment they had available. However, they now look upon the unplanned adaptation as demonstrating that remote teaching of "hands-on" robotics might be possible.

To view the rest of the article "UC faculty and staff complete historic academic undertaking in response to COVID-19"  please read the origional story