These robots help teach physics at Loyola


The concepts of physics may seem abstract and irrelevant to some students, but a Loyola College professor is determined to change their minds -- with the help of a few robots in her classroom.

Mary Lowe, an assistant professor of physics at the college, requires students in her one-year introductory course for non-physics majors to build a working robot using the concepts of electricity and magnetism, optics, waves and thermodynamics that they have learned about in her lectures.

"It's an interesting but non-trivial way of making students see how physics is used," Dr. Lowe said. "Robots attract a lot of natural curiosity. Their humanoid characteristics are interesting and people are fascinated by them. The idea of robots appeals to both science and non-science types."

Joelle Sobotka, a 21-year-old senior, was enrolled in the pilot course last spring.

"It was difficult and I felt challenged but when the robot worked it made all of the hard work worthwhile," said Miss Sobotka, a biology major who will be starting veterinary school in August. "It was so exciting to be able to build a robot in a college undergraduate course. The robotics made it seem a little more interesting and real to life. We got to actually see what we had learned in class; we got to see it working."

Angela Peloquin, a 22-year-old senior and classmate in the course, said she gained "a sense of pride" from the work she did with a teammate on a robot that had sensors enabling it to move about in response to a beam of light.

"In a regular lab you do certain experiments, but you never see the results exactly and tangibly," Miss Peloquin said. "You can't fit it into everyday life. But in this class, you were working toward a goal of a finished product. At times you were frustrated, but overall it was motivational. I got a lot more involved in what I was doing. It definitely was a big stimulus."

That's just the sort of response Dr. Lowe was hoping for when she developed the curriculum for the class and submitted it in a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. She was awarded a total of $89,000 in matching grant money from the foundation and Loyola to develop the class.

"I want to whet their appetite for physics," Dr. Lowe said. "My aim is to teach physics and I'm using robots to help me do that."

Students spend the first semester learning the physical principles and building techniques they will need to construct a robot during the next semester.

"That's when they get to be creative and apply what they have learned in a structured setting to building the robot," Dr. Lowe said. "My students want to be creative and I'm trying to gear their creativity toward technical apparatus."

The pilot group of 12 students produced seven robots last spring. In the first phase of the project, each team built a two-foot-square mobile platform on wheels, adding batteries, motors, switches and wires. The result: a remote control car.

The next step was to "make it independent" so it could navigate around a room on its own by tracking the wall or following a strip of tape on the floor. Some of the robots also performed a function -- such as lifting -- with a robotic arm, Dr. Lowe said.

"At the end, my students realize how difficult it is to test something," she said. "There are a lot of frustrations in the process of testing, de-bugging and retesting. And it's all very much a part of the scientific process.

"Ultimately, in the pilot class six of the seven robots worked. One team had one series of disasters after another, but I think they learned more than everybody else. They really had to think about what was going wrong."

Randall Jones, associate professor and chairman of the physics department, said that students have been enthusiastic about the opportunity to experiment with "the ideas of physics."

"They've really gotten caught up in it," Dr. Jones said. "It's incredible to see. There's a lot of appeal in robots. They're really 20th and 21st century. In standard labs, students reproduce old experiments. But the technology of Galileo doesn't impress them when they're used to hi-tech video games and VCRs. Also, physics is mostly mechanical and robots are a real mechanical kind of apparatus."

In preparing her grant proposal and developing the course, Dr. Lowe has turned for technical advice to Lance Shum, technical director of the manufacturing systems and technology center for the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group. Dr. Shum is active in the field of robotics.

"Dr. Lowe is creative because she makes the subject of physics so interesting to students that they will pursue information about it," Dr. Shum said. "If you mention the word robot to any young student they will get excited because it includes a lot of technologies."

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