Fall-Winter 2014 Gilmore

  • Learning robotics and paying it forward

    Learning robotics and paying it forward

Alisa Gilmore's popular robotics classes help students to build on their freshman-year training and to encourage future generations of engineers.
Alisa Gilmore has an army of robots at her disposal, and the associate professor of practice in electrical and computer engineering never has to worry about finding recruits to program them.

Because the mobile robotics class she teaches at the college’s Omaha campus builds on the training that students receive in their freshman-year curriculum, it has become a popular elective and reaches enrollment limits quickly.

“It’s an elective for our program, and it fills up fast. We are supposed to have 15 students, but we go up to 20 sometimes,” Gilmore said. “It’s a junior-level class, but since seniors register first it inevitably fills up with seniors, and a lot of students who want to take the class can’t get in.”

Mobile robotics students design an intelligent agent architecture called behavior-based programming and program the robot to do more advanced tasks than encountered in earlier classes, Gilmore said. That includes making the robots “think” and make decisions based on data received from sensors.

In a lab, students assemble the robots, choosing from a large suite of sensors – infrared, ultrasonic, light-detecting, to name a few. The robots are then programmed to behave in a certain manner, such as following a line, going toward or avoiding a light, or following a moving shadow.

“The students build off the same platform they receive freshman year in the CEENBoT™ program. We encourage them to push the envelope by giving them a foundation in mobile robotics history and architecture and new technologies, so that they can later apply many of those concepts outside the classroom,” Gilmore said.

“Last year, we added a CMU (Carnegie-Mellon University) camera, a self-contained vision system that you can interact with and train to see certain colors. Based on those colors, students program commands to the motors to move the robot in response to where the colors are in the environment,” Gilmore said. “It was new last time, a valuable addition and I plan to expand upon it in the spring semester.”

Gilmore also has no trouble recruiting students to help her put on the annual Nebraska Robotics Expo, which draws teams of elementary and middle school students to compete. The sixth expo will take place in February 2015 at the Strategic Air Command Museum near Mahoney State Park.

“It was born out of National Science Foundation grant that we received. Professor Bing Chen, who was our PI, requires the students in freshman seminar to have service hours, so we get 50 to 70 who come in and help set things up and run the competitions,” Gilmore said.

“Even though they’re thrown into the picture the last two days of the event, most of our students get a lot out of being there and seeing the younger kids. There’s not a lot of training for this, but that’s a good preparation for real life because you don’t always have training,” Gilmore said. “They learn leadership. Many right away will emerge as student leaders who can join groups and get others involved.”

Gilmore, who previously worked as a control systems engineer in a factory, hadn’t worked in robotics before joining the faculty, but had experience with many of the components used in robotics. Now, she’s seeing how the robots are a valuable teaching tool – for her at the college level and as a mother, and for the teachers and students who compete at the expo.

“I love to learn, and I love to teach,” Gilmore said. “I enjoy guiding students to an understanding of how to make robots work intelligently and the creativity you can bring to it. I have a 10-year-old, and he’s into robotics at school. I love that there’s opportunities and for young kids to be engaged at this age is amazing, I love that they have opportunities.

“The expo is where it comes together. It’s not geared to be a gender-specific event, but we’re starting to get more girls, sometimes full teams of girls, and they’re getting awards and getting excited. The great thing is it gets students who have different interests to get entry into STEM fields. That, ultimately, is what this is all about.”