65 students. 13 robots. One head-to-head battle. Step inside Mechatronics 2 and uncover how engineering students are achieving epic bragging rights (sometimes on an international scale) and a head-start in their careers, too.
Ask Sarath Kodagoda what the atmosphere is like in his Mechatronics 2 class and he’ll give you an unexpected answer.
“Very noisy,” he laughs. “People are joking, they are arguing with each other, proposing and debating new solutions to the problem. It’s a really nice, very warm atmosphere.”
It’s not your average tutorial, for sure. But, while it might sound like chaos, Sarath’s students are actually deep into a project that could see them competing against other roboticists on an international stage. In small groups, these undergraduates are building autonomous robots able to navigate a diabolical maze of Sarath’s creation, with plenty of twists and turns, and some infrared curtains thrown in for good measure.
Having worked in robotics for more than two decades, Sarath, who is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director (Teaching and Research Integration) at the Centre for Autonomous Systems, has always had a strong passion for the field. But, when he took over as program coordinator for the undergraduate mechatronics course, the way classes were being taught left him cold.
“Traditional lectures and labs were not inspiring anybody. The students don’t have the opportunity to think. They don't have time to innovate,” he explains.
Looking for a way to give his students a real-life experience that could advance their learning, he hit upon the idea of running a robotics competition in his own class. After all, he thought, the only thing better than getting to build a robot in class is getting to build a robot in class that can beat your friends’!
A close-up of one of the robots being built during Mechatronics 2. Photo by Shane Lo
Working in small teams, students in Mechatronics 2 learn how to use micro-controllers, work with actuators and sensors, and do the complex programming required to make their robots autonomous. And, while getting a robot through a maze may sound simple, Sarath adds new challenges each semester to test the students’ creativity.
“That's one of the other great things,” adds Sarath. “I haven't seen two teams in any class have the same solution. Each and every team comes with their own solutions.”
What’s more, the students’ passion for robotics, ignited by the competition, extends well beyond the boundaries of the classroom. For example, the winners of the in-class competition are given the opportunity to compete in the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Challenge, which features competitors from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand.
Some students have even taken it upon themselves to enter external competitions, establish a robotics society (RobUTS) and facilitate workshops across year groups.
“The students are now self-motivated to do their own projects. They are basically inspired by themselves and they are growing as life-long learners. That’s what I'm really proud of,” he says.
The project-based approach Sarath has taken deliberately mirrors reality. Every week, Sarath and his colleagues at CAS are working with industry to solve real-life problems, like a robot that can crawl inside dirty, corrosive sewer pipes so water utilities can assess their condition before they collapse
Sarath says, a collaborative approach, and utilising a range of skills and backgrounds is essential to creating innovative and effective solutions. And, by equipping students with these collaborative and problem-solving skills, Sarath’s helping them build technology that will make a real difference.
“They’re joining us as part of capstone projects, internships, or projects in other subjects. It is not only that they are learning, they are producing some tangible outcomes,” he notes.
Engineering student Rodrigo Perez Caldelas agrees Mechatronics 2 is unlike any other class he’s taken.
“It’s such a special unit because it gives you the tools to start creating advanced projects and gives you an insight into the future applications robotics can have,” explains Rodrigo. “The subject doesn't give you any methods to solve the tasks required, so you actually learn a lot more. Creativity and dedication are fundamental pillars for engineers, so I know Sarath’s class has given me an edge over other engineers.”
The transformation of Mechatronics 2 was recently recognised at the Vice-Chancellor's Awards for Research Excellence, where Sarath came away with the prestigious UTS Medal for Research and Teaching Integration.
He is now bringing his active, project-based approach to the rest of his classes.
The faculty is also looking at using new spaces and studios across units so students can learn and work together in groups, interact with staff as mentors and do more impactful work. They are also hoping to introduce a Masters in Robotics in 2019, a scaled-up version of the Mechatronics 2 concepts tackling real-world problems.
Overall, Sarath is focused on ensuring all of his students are ready to take on whatever the future holds.
“The technology is going at an extremely fast rate. It's not about today's job market, what we have to be thinking about is what is happening in the future. We have to basically prepare ourselves and prepare our students so that they can face the challenges of the future.”