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New robotics teaching lab enhances engineers’ skills

robotics virginia tech

Students work to program mobile robots in the new robotics teaching lab in Randolph Hall. The lab, started by Associate Professor Pinhas Ben-Tzvi in spring 2017, uses more than $175,000 in robotics equipment to provide a hands-on complement to traditional lectures.

In an effort to get students’ minds fully engaged in their learning, a mechanical engineering professor decided he needed to get their hands fully engaged in their learning.

Associate Professor Pinhas Ben-Tzvi teaches undergraduate classes in robotics and automation, specifically, ME4524 and ECE 4704 for juniors and seniors. Citing a disconnect between the academic theory of robotics systems and the lack of a hands-on course that would allow students to see how the theory worked in the real world, Ben-Tzvi created a new lab with robotics equipment to help students learn.

“Given the demands of academia and industry, the land of a hands-on component was an issue I felt needed to be addressed,” he said. “Starting with the spring 2017 semester, we offered the lab component during lecture time, and our next step is to make it a stand-alone lab in conjunction with the class lectures.”

With a suite of mobile robots and robotic manipulators worth more than $175,000 to house, Ben-Tzvi acquired renovated space in Randolph Hall where students can learn about robot kinematics, dynamics, sensing, controls, haptics, mobile robotics, mapping/localization, computer vision, and path planning.

Even though the class is an elective class and has prerequisites, Ben-Tzvi currently has about 50 students enrolled, and he believes it will continue to grow.

“One of the most important hands-on skills will be to hone the students’ ability to program with Matlab and Simulink,” Ben-Tzvi said. “The opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment will help our students deal with real programming issues and robotics aspects of system integration that they’ll come across in industry. Programming is a key skills-set that allows engineers to become problem-solvers, and students really seem to like and appreciate the course.”

The hands-on portion of working with robots and controllers also helps students in class lectures, as they can compare the theoretical with how it applies to the actual, which also helps them retain more of what they learn, Ben-Tzvi said.

“What makes someone good at their job is their ability to use their knowledge on the fly because they understand and retain the concepts,” Ben-Tzvi said. “The lab experience is what sets up that ability to make those connections.”


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