Robotics and Research at CMU

By Ariana Chae '15

I had a chance to talk to Mike Taylor (again) and Jenn Cross (both'10 ECE majors), who are currently pursuing their Ph.Ds in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon. At Olin, Mike did robotic tuna research, and Jenn did research with Professor Gill Pratt. At CMU, they are currently working in the CREATE lab, which stands for Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment.

ARI: Tell me about your research - what have you been working on?

Jenn_Teaching.jpgJenn at the CreateLab Conference for Teachers

JENN: CREATE is a robotics lab interested in empowering communities of people with technologies and robotics. For example, I'm doing research related to educational robotics, and Mike is doing research on machine learning and data visualization. The commonality is that I hope to empower students with robotic tools, and Mike works to empower groups with data and information. Our goal is to give new insights and technological tools to people who don't currently have access to them.

MIKE: Several of the projects have to do with air quality; it plays a major role in people's health, especially in urban and rural areas. In both cases, there can be serious health consequences to poor air quality. Air quality is hard to sense and understand. We are developing low cost air quality sensors that can be deployed in anyone's home, and collecting high-resolution high-temporally resolved data that people can view and use to gain a better understanding of what they are breathing in and what their particular lifestyle choices are doing. Essentially, we are using technology and data to show people how their life choices affect others. We don't prescribe specific courses of action; we just provide them with the data and the tools to understand it so they can make their own choices.

JENN:I'm working on educational robotics. In particular, I've been working with a kit - the Arts & Bots kit. It contains common robotics components - a servo motor, LEDs, a custom microcontroller, etc., which are combined with common craft materials. The kit was created for teachers to use in a classroom to build robots that are highly customizable with their students. They can be used in classes that are not technology or engineering-oriented, but rather in a class like language arts, to build a robot that represents a poem. We're trying to help students develop technological fluency skills through robotics and to provide a context for doing so. We're giving people who wouldn't be interested in engineering otherwise a reason to engage with robotics.

ARI: It sounds like you're doing awesome work. Have you found that your undergraduate experience at Olin has affected your performance in grad school?

MIKE: In terms of preparing students for grad school through pure technical knowledge, for example raw math skills, or exposure to math, we weren't quite as prepared and ready to dive in as some other students. At the same time, Olin has always emphasized learning how to learn, so although the first year was incredibly painful, we caught up. It takes perseverance and you have to get used to being at the bottom of the stack, especially if what you're working on is math or theory heavy. But when it comes to application, where we have to build something, we're all over that. Academia doesn't focus on building things, it focuses on writing papers, so that can be a bit of a misplaced skill set here.

Mike_Uganda2.jpgMike during a trip to Uganda

JENN: I agree. A lot of schools, not Olin, have a heavy emphasis on theoretical knowledge and mathematical proofs and memorizing definitions and terminology. Olin is very much into learning how to learn, finding the information you're looking for, but in many classes [grad school], it definitely can feel like you are running to catch up from behind. However, I do believe that Olin gave us more of the correct attitudes for doing graduate research- knowing how to deal with an ambiguous problem, and how to solve design problems.

MIKE: I would say that Olin is the reason why I know how to talk to people. Especially with the lab that we're in, a lab that involves a lot of interfacing with the community and with users, things like UOCD (User Oriented Collaborative Design) and Sustainable Design have been very helpful for me. In fact, right now I'm a TA for Systems Engineering, and I've never actually taken Systems Engineering, so I'm teaching something that I've never taken. Olin gave me all the pieces that I need to understand how to get there.

JENN: The most valuable classes for me were also UOCD  and HFID (Human Factors and Interface Design). I work on designing educational experiences for middle schoolers, and the ability to listen and understand what's going on around you and really pay attention to the details is something that Olin alumni are pretty good at. We have a lot of practical project experience, so we tend to be well prepared as leaders for those types of projects.

ARI: I would agree that you've hit on the very aspects of Olin that make it unique. Do you have any advice on grad school for current students who may be interested in the future?

MIKE: If someone wants to go to grad school, find a way to publish. At Olin you have a lot of opportunities for self-directed research, but there isn't as much of a focus on publishing the work. Once you hit grad school, if it isn't published it doesn't count, so definitely try to publish, and to do so before senior year. Also, if you don't want your first year to be problematic, take more math, and pay attention to it.

JENN: For students who want to go to graduate school, seek out extra math classes and strengthen your skills. I think Wellesley has a good math program with more advanced topics. I would also say know what research is coming in - you want to understand the nitty-gritty of what it means to have an ambiguous problem in front of you. Know the research process beyond the undergraduate research at Olin; at Olin I never had a "standard" research experience. Going out and getting research experience elsewhere was very helpful, so consider doing  REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) during your summers.

MIKE: Good research has had its bones broken a few times to get stronger. Find a professor who's going to knock some holes in your rough draft. If you do research and you haven't put it in front of the firing squad at least once, that ought to happen, because when you get to grad school you're going to go in with something you're proud of and you're going to come out of it knowing all the ways to make it better.

JENN: Explain your process clearly. Put together a strong argument for your research choices. Also, ask for honest feedback, and attend academic conferences that aren't just designed for undergrads.

Jenn_Stickies.jpgStill using stickies... Thanks Olin!

MIKE: The only other thing I would recommend in retrospect is that nothing is really coming close to the awesome social group that was Olin. Make time for good, lasting friendships because they're going to be the best you have for a long time. Party while you can!

JENN: Agreed. Olin provides a wonderful networking opportunity with your peers, not just faculty, and the opportunity to make great friends. Now that my Olin class has been distributed across the US, when we have something come up at the lab and we really need a contact at a company to talk to us, I usually know someone who can help. It's networking for your future, so Mike has a good point - be sure to take advantage while you're at Olin and do more than just study!

Jenn's and Mike's commentary on their graduate school experience included several observations that other Oliners have mentioned to us - especially the capability of Olin graduates to take on the grit and creativity of doctoral research as well as challenges in mathematics preparation. On the latter point, we have already made significant changes to our core mathematics curriculum including the development of two new required courses, Linearity I and II, hired new faculty with outstanding applied mathematics expertise including Erin Byrne, and enhanced undergraduate research opportunities that now include Olin itself as a NSF REU site. We rely on the partnership of our students and alumni, like Jenn and Mike, to help us to continue to build Olin.

Vin Manno

Provost and Dean of Faculty

Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak, Graduate School, Research