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Students, faculty to display robotic creations

Henry Gens | Friday, April 12, 2013


This Sunday, 82 students and faculty from Notre Dame’s Colleges of Engineering and Arts and Letters, as well as the Robinson Community Learning Center, will celebrate the fourth annual National Robotics Week by displaying their robots in an open exhibition at the Stepan Center.

Laurel Riek, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, is organizing the second annual Notre Dame event. Riek also organized Notre Dame’s first National Robotics Week exhibition last year. 

Riek said the expectation last year was to have a very simple event, but the attendance was much higher than anticipated.

“Last year, the plan was to have the event be a one-day, robot-themed science museum to get the public excited about it,” Riek said. “We ended up having over 600 people come to see the robots, and we got an overwhelmingly positive response from the community.”

Riek said the event grew out of an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort she implemented in her computer science and engineering course, Autonomous Mobile Robots. 

“In 2012 I worked with Krista Hoefle, an associate professor of art over at Saint Mary’s. Her art students and my computer science students created robots for the event together,” Riek said. “I realized from that collaboration how art is a great way of engaging the public with robotics. We can design all these fantastic algorithms for our robots, but by enhancing them a little bit with art and making them be interactive, people can start to appreciate all the great engineering going on under the hood.”

Jay Brockman, the Associate Dean of Engineering for Educational Programs, said the robotics event is a key initiative in fostering community engagement. 

“It fits into a grand vision of where we would like to see the college of engineering and the University be in five or so years, and that is to see a much better partnership between the University and the South Bend community,” Brockman said.

Brockman also said the upcoming exhibition is important for engendering interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. 

“A high school student often says, ‘I do okay at math and science but I want to do something that interests people, so I’m not going to major in engineering or science,'” Brockman said. “But by seeing things like Dr. Riek’s work with robots applied to medicine, as well as all the entertaining robots that will be at the event, it shows how interesting engineering is in a way that the community can really relate to.”

A variety of robots will be on display and interacting with visitors at the event. For example, graduate students Mike Gonzales and Tariq Iqbal have designed a disk jockey robot.

“One of the robots that we are building is a DJ that will not only be playing music but will also sense and then judge how expressive and engaged participants are,” Gonzales said. 

In addition to the robots themselves, students will discuss some of the underlying mathematics. Graduate student Maryam Moosaei will be demonstrating the facial tracking and pain detection algorithms she and other students in Riek’s lab are using to create more realistic patient mannequins for training doctors and nurses. 

There will also be robotics-themed prizes raffled off at the event and T-shirts will be sold with all proceeds going to the Donors Choose fund to benefit local Saint Joseph County school teachers, Riek said. 

Two of the graduate students in Riek’s lab, Maria O’Connor and Cory Hayes, plan to make even the raffle robotics-related, Hayes said. 

Hayes said the raffle tickets will be accepted by a small robot designed to look like R2-D2 from the Star Wars movies.

“We’re going to have a little R2-D2 robot that will wheel around beeping and accepting passports for the raffle, stopping to tell jokes every time someone submits one,” Hayes said. 

The exhibition will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is free and open to the public.