Students vs. Robots

Making music and toys with smart engineering

By designing robots that can haunt a house, teach kindergarteners and play the glockenspiel, engineering students at Tufts are learning about such sophisticated concepts as programming, computer vision, artificial intelligence and control systems.

They design and build bots in Ethan Danahy’s course Simple Robotics—one of 10 exploration courses in which first-year engineering students can test-drive the different fields of engineering. “We use the Lego Mindstorms robotics toolset and engage in some really high-level robotics concepts,” says Ethan Danahy, a research assistant professor of computer science and the engineering research director at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO).

Last semester, Danahy’s students designed robots for the CEEO Halloween open house. Many contained sensors that detected when visitors reached for candy treats and responded with bone-chilling tricks—eyeballs dropping from the ceiling, a smack from a bony hand or a greeting from a creepy spider.

Students’ final projects for the course focus on the theme “playful creations” and are designed to be used in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

Watch students design robots that make music. Video: Steffan Hacker

“They have real-life clients embodied in these 4- to 8-year-old students,” says Danahy. “They’re tough clients. They care about their own enjoyment, about having fun with this, so they’re going to be brutal.” The final robot designs feature all manner of bells and whistles: games and puzzles with interactive sound, light and touch displays.

“What’s exciting is the diversity of solutions, and that’s really important for these students to understand—that it isn’t just about one right answer that they’re trying to target,” says Danahy.

The interplay between creativity and failure is a theme Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the CEEO, reinforces in his Introduction to Robotics class, in which students design robots that play instruments as part of their final projects.

“If you want the students to be innovative and creative, they have to take risks. And if they’re going to take risks, then there’s a large chance they’ll fail,” says Rogers. “But the greater the risk, the more chance [of the outcome] being really innovative.”

Rogers’ students have created a veritable robot orchestra: Their mechanical musicians have played trombones, drums and glockenspiels as well as guitars and cellos.

The students “go in directions that never occurred to me,” says Rogers. “They’ll ask me questions that I can’t answer, and that’s when I know I’ve succeeded.”

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