Pursuing robotics at the university level

As it says in the title, I’m interested in continuing robotics into college (and hopefully finding a job working on robots!). I’m currently registered at my college-to-be as a computer engineer, but I’m considering switching to either ME or Comp Sci. While mechatronics would be the obvious choice, unfortunately my school doesn’t offer it…yet :yikes: Has anyone had a similar experience, or does anyone know what sort of major would be best for a job in the field? Thanks for the help!

I would first describe what you want to do. Do you want to develop artificial intelligence? Perhaps develop mechanisms for robots? Are you interested in programming logic controllers (FPGA)? What about control systems?

These questions should reflect on what you want to do and where you want to go, not necessarily your present strengths.

Also reflect on how you fit into a team. Are you the one who comes up with the mechanism ideas? Do you find yourself excited about how to control the system?

Surely you can learn bits and peices of a system, but it is often advantageous to choose one area to focus your efforts in.

At the end of your college career, the projects you worked on will outweigh your classroom training and words on a diploma.

At the college level, one thing you could participate in is the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge http://urc.marssociety.org/. There are countless other robotics projects going on throughout universities. Which school are you attending?

That’s really good advice. On my teams, I always love designing the mechanisms themselves, but end up programming and wiring because no one else will. As such, I’ve gotten really familiar with the innards of the robot…but absolutely hate it. I sort of always knew that, but the way you put made me realise the extent of my issue.

For a career, all I truly know is that I want to work with robotics, in some way, outside of medicine or warfare. I’m the first to admit I couldn’t handle a surgical theatre, and as a pacifist I couldn’t accept the responsibility military drones would place on me. Bomb squad, industrial, NASA, something along those lines. Taking into account how I fit into robotics, I’m still left with two (seemingly very divergent) options: control systems or mechanisms.

On one hand, I’ve been playing around with automating things for as long as I remember. Every lego I owned was turned into a Rube Goldberg machine at some point, and working on a mechanical level would be kid me’s dream job. On the other hand, the concept of programming something which has a function in the real world, of refining the controls to the point where the simplest construct can operate with surgical precision, is just so awesome to me. It’s like living in the future! Digital data changing the real world…it just has a ‘cool’ factor that I can’t shake. And I’ve gotten way too familiar with a bunch of languages for my own good.

As for college, I’ll be going to the Virginia Commonwealth University next year (well, August). It’s a quickly rising school in STEM, and it’s affordable. Plus, it has one of my favorite local teams literally a block away - not something I’ll pursue next year, but definitely before I graduate. I’ve talked to the professors, and they have some really interesting stuff going on, especially with UAVs.

I couldn’t agree more with your statement about focusing your efforts, and I recognise that I have to make a choice. Still, I’m not sure which one will pay off in the long run. My dad taught me three rules to job satisfaction: do what you love, do what you’re good at, and do what makes you money. Any two and you’ll at least be able to know you made the right decision for yourself. However, both options are fairly fulfilling, and it might come down to which is more likely to result in success in the business world. I’m not sure, and I hate to ramble - do you think I’m on the right track, or am I missing something that could factor into this as well? Thank you so much for the response, it’s definitely a lot to think about :smiley:

PS: I love the link you posted, I’ll definitely have to investigate it more after IB exams.

You might be able to do control systems from the mechanical engineering side, which will teach you about mechanisms for sure. I know at SDSM&T, where I went, all the MEs had to take an introductory controls class–I want to say it was a sophomore-level course, and taught by one of the ME profs. (We also had a circuits class and a mechatronics class that were both required, and both junior-level courses, plus senior design projects.)

Not all control systems are electronic; sometimes a mechanical one will work quite well also. I believe that a Geneva mechanism was discussed on CD as a viable climber option this year, for example.

I think you are on the right track. From your response, it sounds like you know what you want to do. If VCU doesn’t have a program that you find interesting, work with faculty early on, starting your Freshman year, to get something established. You might want to initiate a project with a faculty adviser. A project such as the URC is exactly what an up-and-coming STEM university needs for publicity. If you treat a university as a business (which most act as anyway), publicity and projects bring in more money and more contracted projects.

You’ve done yourself a huge favor by reaching out to the community for guidance. I wish I had better mentorship when I was in college, and did not take advantage of sites such as Chief Delphi or other outlets for making all of my education experience.

Another thing: don’t worry if you “don’t get it right” the first time. Part of your career and becoming the best that you can be is realizing what you don’t know and researching the skills required through self-teaching. As you progress through your schooling and professional career, don’t be afraid to take on a new skill (Arduino for me), try something new, and take risks.

If I can give one bit of advice, it is to network; FIRST provides one of the most amazing networking opportunities in the world. One thing that is understood, but rarely recognized, is that FIRST isn’t just for students in grade school; we are all students to each other and never stop learning. Use this to your advantage.

I have been in your position for many of the tasks I’ve worked on over the past five years. I’m presently in a position I’m not too fond of (under-utilized and not challenged enough), and get to do the work I enjoy about 10% of the time. You can learn something from any job you are in, but not realize it at first. Remember those jobs you hated? You learned something that, in the future, will help you build a system as a better-informed engineer. Continue to be an optimist, and every task you perform is suddenly knowledge gained.

As an aside, because of my involvement in FRC, I’ve made a lot of friends and last year helped found a nonprofit (www.growingstems.org). Additionally, I am currently in the planning stages to found a business that does what I love (take three parts FRC, one part educational outreach, four parts product development and put it in a blender :smiley: ).

First off, sorry for the late reply! I’ve been busy studying for IB exams, haven’t had as much time as I’d like to respond :frowning:

Eric: It’s interesting to hear that your ME professors also taught mechatronics and electronics. You have a point about control systems, thanks! I’ll have to keep that in mind while I’m talking to my advisers/professors.

Tim(?): That’s a good point about treating it as a business. Plus, finding a career will be much easier after university if you already have experience leading and building a successful team!

I think I might be worried about getting everything exactly perfect the first time, you have a point there. My parents taught me to be incredibly careful when thinking about the future, but I agree that “getting it right” is going to be a long process for me. Plus, smart risk taking is fun!

You definitely have a point that even hated jobs teach you. Learning to wire is a job that I’ll use long after FRC - plus everybody has to start somewhere :stuck_out_tongue:

Oh, and thank you for being a part of a community that I can reach out too! Chief Delphi is a wonderful place and I’m thankful that I can get such wonderful advice from people who I never would have gotten a chance to meet otherwise.

This year really showed FIRST in its full splendor (at least for me). I’ve met so many great mentors, got to befriend some of the best teams I’ve seen on field, and found an opportunity to give back to the community. While I might not be able to reconnect with some people, I love the network that FIRST created.

Also of note, I’ve emailed one of the department heads at VCU (he’s involved with the UAV competion, and mentioned when I met him in person that he had experience with robotics). Also, I’ve talked to my current math professor and shop teacher. In all, they’ve agreed with what you have both said here, along with a few specifics.

I think I’m best suited to go into mechanical (and starting up teams to better suit my goals), so as long as my adviser approves I think I’m set. Thanks so much for the help you guys, it really made me prioritise what I wanted out of college! :slight_smile:

Actually… They didn’t. Intro to Circuits was a EE class, known colloquially as “Circuits for Non-Believers” and taught by EE profs. It was required in order to take ME/EE 351, Mechatronics (MEs and EEs and a few CSCs took that one), also taught by EE profs.

On the other hand, Dynamic Systems (AKA controls class) was taught by an ME prof who also taught vibrations.

Definitely talk to your advisers; they’ll probably be able to point you in the right direction as far as electives and what required courses will “fit in” with what you’re looking for. (All three of the above-mentioned courses were required for MEs where I went.)

Switching your major really comes down to what you enjoy. Consider that in much more detail. The best way to figure this out is to practice CAD, programming and electronics. Don’t wait for a course to somehow open that magic door to what you enjoy, projects will guide you much faster than a course.

As far as a career in robotics, all of those degrees will help qualify for a robotics career. I know many people with backgrounds in computer engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science that have robotics careers.

I’ve also spent many years in the university setting studying robotics. If you decide you want to get a PhD in robotics, then plan to spend lots of time working in a professors lab and writing papers. If you start this as an undergrad, you significantly increase your chances of getting career at NASA, as a Professor or Robotics researcher.

Definitely stay in projects. There are a lot of hot robotics-type projects out there. If you want to go after controls, you can go after it via the mechanical side or the electrical engineering side (I chose the electrical engineering, but I’ll still take the MechE controls classes). As everyone has said, and will continue to say, get in a project. I would suggest seeing if there’s a UAV, MicroMouse, DARPA (I know you’re against military, but DARPA’s sponsoring some really cool intelligent systems stuff, a lot of which has lately been autonomous navigation), or other Intelligent Systems stuff. I’m personally involved with UCSD AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International). AUVSI sponsors several intelligent systems competitions, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned submersibles, and unmanned ground vehicles. See http://www.auvsifoundation.org/foundation/competitions/ for more info. NASA also has several internships that play with robots. Look for NASSA OSSI for those opportunities, and LARSS as a junior or senior in college. I’m not sure what there is in your college’s area, but look for internships at startups that are playing with robots (could look at biotech automation companies, defense contractors, aerospace companies, research groups).

You’re in for a great time as a college student. You will meet a whole lot of people. Many of the student groups will feel EXACTLY like FRC (sadly, in some respects). Probably the biggest difference you’ll see is the budget you’ll be allowed to play with, and the other toys you’ll play with. Enjoy! (Make friends with the shop manager - if you’re on good terms, it won’t matter that you’re a freshman EE. He’ll let you in if he knows you’re good).