Fundamental Robotics

SSO 102
Fundamental Robotics
Joe Zhou

Offered Spring 2008

This seminar course will provide a technical overview of robotics. Students will be guided to explore the basic principles behind robot operations, the numerous robot applications, and the societal impacts of robotics. Hands-on opportunities will also be provided to students to build their own robots from simple development kits.


Interview with Joe Zhou, Mechanical Engineering

Professor Zhou taught SSO 102, Fundamental Robotics in the Spring Semester of 2008.  I caught up with him in August 2009 to reflect on his experience.

How did you come up with the LEGO project?

Even before I began the course I thought about doing some course projects to catch students’ attention, and make them motivated so that they would get something out of the class.  I talked to the Undergraduate Colleges, and they purchased robot kits for the course.  We had a limited amount of time, and the students have other courses they have to take, so I cannot make the course project really very sophisticated.  Considering that they are at the entry level of the college, some of them are not engineering students, and more than half of them have probably never touched LEGOs, LEGOs are the easiest thing for them to start.  They don’t need to build circuits, they don’t need to write serious programs; they just use whatever I provide, and they can make nice-looking machines.  It looks good.  It gives them confidence.  They can say, “OK, we started from scratch, we had no background, and in just a couple of weeks, we made a working robot!”  I believe by doing that that they do gain some confidence about themselves.  I think that’s very important

At the end of the course, some of the students were interested in really further developing their interest into the robotics field, and some of them asked me if there was an opportunity to do research in the lab.  Well, I had to calm them down!  “Don’t think to broadly at this moment,” I said.  “To do research, you need to accumulate a background of knowledge.  Study hard and two years later, junior year, you can think about doing serious research.”  I felt that some of the students did develop their serious interest in engineering and technology after taking this class.  I think that that’s a good thing.  After their projects, I saw some of them really becoming more serious about the technology, but not all of them, of course.

What sort of skills did you want them to learn?

I encourage them to talk.  I have at least half of the class, I have open discussion time, and after they finish their write-up I give them open discussion time.  This kind of project, it is small, but it is a team project.  There are multiple reasons for this, of course.  They are expensive.  I can’t give every student one set, but even if I could, I would still ask them to do teamwork, because it is a very important opportunity for them to interact with each other.  That’s the first, probably the first teamwork opportunity for them in the university.  So they get to know each other.  They start to learn how to work with each other as a team.  Every group worked well. 

How did your class change as you taught it?

In the beginning, I prepared pretty systematic PowerPoint slides with a lot of phrases and sentences to try to give them a systematic background, introduce the history, applications, and the different fields that use robots, but the students were not interested in those things.  At that point I realized they are not senior students or even juniors, who are interested in the technical details.  They are just first-year students, freshmen.  They are not in the field.  In fact, for that SSO class, most of them are have an arts background, or a medical background.  There are not so many engineering students.  Later on some engineering students joined the class.  After one or two classes, they asked if they could join the class, and I said, OK.  I realized it’s really a mixture of students with different backgrounds.  So instead of letting them feel sleepy in the class, I banged my head, and search online for all the sources I can find, to get all kind of videos clips, pictures. Of course, I didn’t play movies for them.  They can go to the cinema to do that.  I collected quite a few video clips of real robots, working in the real manufacturing environment and for medical applications.

Then probably after the first couple of classes, I began teaching in this way, playing videos.  At the beginning, I would talk a little bit, tell them about the general application and technology we are talking about today.  I would then play some videos that would really fit with that topic.  Then at the end I would give them a few minutes to talk, discuss.  It seems that after I do that, they opened their eyes and became more focused. 

We also have an open discussion in the class.  Everyone writes a 1-2 page research paper on their idea about the robot application in their field.  Then after that, I encourage them to discuss those in the class.  Unfortunately most of the students are very shy, so they can write a little bit, but when it comes to talking in the class they back off.  You have to force them to talk, you have to show and present their write-up, it can just be a few sentences, very brief.

What did you get out of teaching for the course?

It’s a very good teaching experience.  It’s slightly different from my other experience teaching in the department, because I teach graduate students.  I also teach undergraduates, but at the junior/senior level.  This is a totally different touch.  This experience allowed me to know better how these younger students think.  It’s not only the students who are adapting to the professor. It’s bidirectional.  In fact, in my other teaching in the department, I have been trying to understand how the students are thinking, how to make them interested in my class, in their course project.  I try to also adapt to them for a few reasons.  If they are not interested in my class, they don’t come to class, then there are only a few students sitting in the class, it’s very ugly.  They are not going to write good comments.  But more importantly for themselves, if they are not interested, they are not motivated, they cannot learn the knowledge well enough.  Another thing is that I will not only motivate them by trying to adapt my teaching style to them, I try to deliver the knowledge in a more effective way.  Of course I need to spend more time to get new material that can interest them, but by doing that change, I do feel they become interested.