Undergraduate robotics program starts enrollment this fall

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The College of Engineering’s new undergraduate program in robotics will empower students to practice the full spectrum of robotics — including underwater, wheeled, legged, flying and medical robots — at the 134,000-square-foot Ford Motor Company Robotics Building.

The program is available for fall 2022 enrollment following state approval from the Michigan Association of State Universities on June 2. The U-M Department of Robotics is a first among top 10 engineering schools.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for qualified robotics professionals grew by more than 13% in 2018 alone, and up to 80% of U.S. industrial employers are facing difficulties filling vacancies for highly skilled technical professionals, including robotics, computer vision, artificial intelligence and motion control.

The global industrial and service robotics markets are expected to grow by more than 20% year over year, reaching a total market of $310 billion by 2025.

Members of the Michigan Mars Rover team test its rover on the Mars Yard outside of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building. Robots meant for space and planet exploration are tested on this specially designed terrain. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)
The Robot Garden outside the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is a space for engineers to test out robot mobility on a number of terrain and textural features. (Photo by Robert Coelius, College of Engineering)

“As our society grows, there’s an unmet demand for people skilled in robotics, and Michigan Engineering is poised to help fill this void as a leader in this space,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, and the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of aerospace engineering.

“The college’s robotics department will produce deeply trained roboticists who put people first, collaborating across disciplines to solve complex issues affecting the state of Michigan, our nation and the world at large.”

The new program features an inclusively designed curriculum with more than 30 course offerings, providing exposure to technologies that were inaccessible for most undergraduate students a decade ago. These include 3D printing for rapidly prototyping new robot designs and high-speed laser scanning that enables simultaneous localization and mapping.

Members of the Michigan Mars Rover team test its rover on the Mars Yard outside of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building. Robots meant for space and planet exploration are tested on this specially designed terrain. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)
Members of the Michigan Mars Rover team test its rover on the Mars Yard outside of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building. Robots meant for space and planet exploration are tested on this specially designed terrain. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)

As tools have become widely available, they can now be rolled out at the undergraduate level. The curriculum centers on how an embodied intelligence senses, reasons, acts and works with humans — covering topics in electronics, mechanisms, computation, mathematical foundations and human-robot interaction.

As companies try to prevent bias from entering their technologies, the need for a talented pool of roboticists who are both highly skilled and equity-centered is vital to help avoid unfair discrimination against citizens, patients, customers and job applicants.

The undergraduate program’s focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and social awareness, in addition to excellence in science and technology, will enable students to design people-first solutions to society’s challenges.

“The University of Michigan has a remarkable ecosystem of academics, enabling our robotics faculty and students to work collaboratively across disciplines with far reaching societal contributions,” said Provost Laurie McCauley.

Recently, the department announced Dawn Tilbury, associate vice president for research-convergence science at U-M, will serve as its first chair named after philanthropists Ronald D. and Regina C. McNeil. She also is the Herrick Professor of Engineering, professor of mechanical engineering and professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Tilbury, who recently led the National Science Foundation Directorate of Engineering, helped lay the foundation for the convergence of disciplines that defines robotics research at the university. She played a leading role in establishing Michigan’s Robotics Institute and noted the opportunity for faculty and students at the department to push the boundaries of the field.

“Robotics has so much potential because it really brings together so many different engineering disciplines — biomedical, computer science, electrical, industrial, mechanical, aerospace, and naval architecture and marine engineering,” Tilbury said. “Michigan roboticists will possess the knowledge and skills to develop robotics that help people across a multitude of arenas whether that’s within their workplace, home or community.”

The College of Engineering last year announced the creation of its new robotics department, which will be an evolved adaptation of the U-M Robotics Institute. In fall 2020, the institute began piloting courses centered around providing excellent engineering instruction and equal opportunity for students.

The Robotics 101 course quickly exposes students to advanced robotics through the theory and computational applications of linear algebra instead of calculus, since not every undergraduate attended a high school that offered calculus.

A four-legged robot shows off its sitting position in the Robot Garden sands outside the Ford Robotics Building. (Photo by Robert Coelius, College of Engineering)
A four-legged robot shows off its sitting position in the Robot Garden sands outside the Ford Robotics Building. (Photo by Robert Coelius, College of Engineering)

This course enrolls students at historically Black colleges and universities, including Morehouse and Spelman, who have a pathway to receive a U-M engineering degree. The Robotics 102 course includes undergraduates at Kentucky’s Berea College, serving mostly Appalachian students.

The outreach to historically excluded populations is reflective of the department’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and the college’s equity-centered engineering framework.

“I know that if we don’t have equitable representation in our research labs and classrooms, we won’t have equitable representation among our development teams, executive suites and policymakers who are thinking about these life-changing technologies,” said Chad Jenkins, associate director of undergraduate programs at the Michigan Robotics Institute and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“We just want to do right by the people who are on our campus and across the country so we can help extend the ladder of opportunity.”

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