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Gadgetron Robot Factory allows students to create and learn

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Students used the Gadgetron Robot Factory tool to design and test their own robots for the CSE 91 "Experience Engineering" class.

Story by Andrew Huang, student writer

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 4, 2015 -- Students unleashed “robot mayhem” during the last day of CSE 91 at UC San Diego. Robots with funny monikers, such as “Bash Ketchum,” ran loose in a miniature arena, where they spun around, played music and generally created creative chaos.

It was all part of a class aimed at teaching students how to design and program robots. All student teams used the Gadgetron Robot Factory, a tool developed at UC San Diego to design the robots.   

Gadgetron lets people build and program simple electronic devices using a web browser - no experience necessary.  Students select the components, user interface and functions. Gadgetron delivers blueprints and instructions to assemble the robots.

The Gadgetron Robot Factory is available online for anyone to use at

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Robots could perform a variety of tasks. 

The class is part of an effort to provide more hands-on learning opportunities for all students, from incoming freshmen to seniors. So far, all six UC San Diego engineering departments have unveiled single-unit seminars as part of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering’s Experience Engineering Initiative.

“Students get excited when robots do cool stuff,” computer science professor Steven Swanson said, adding that he greatly enjoyed teaching the course. “The students wrote code in different ways and the robots ended up with different personalities.”

For CSE 91, students had complete freedom of design within their $52 budget and space constraints. They also had access to laser-cut components and spent several weeks using the Arduino and C++ programming languages to program and test their robots. The students met once a week. First, they studied the parts available for use in their designs, such as LEDs and distance sensors. Then they designed their own robot.

Swanson already was mulling over possible changes to the curriculum moving forward, including giving students time to actually build their robots after designing them (this quarter, the course staff assembled the robots).

Mathematics-computer science major Alexis Atianzar, electrical engineering major Huong “Kimberly” Au, and computer science major Stefanie Tonnu built a robot that used its buzzer to play a chord from Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while also drawing an uppercase “D” with its whiteboard marker.

“I’m thankful I got the opportunity to make a robot this quarter,” Atianzar said. “Learning how to write out syntax from CSE 11 really helped us program the robots here. It’s really fun and I recommend it to other people who are learning CS.” She particularly liked their 8 by 8 light-up matrix and the buzzer on her team’s robot, but found it challenging to figure out which parts could successfully fit onto the final design.

Tonnu chimed in: “In CSE 11, I spent a lot of time debugging, writing stuff out and thinking deeply about what wasn’t working. The logic behind programming is the same, but in CSE 91, we get to see the results in real life.”

Mathematics-computer science major Christian Woll helped design “Chase,” which followed movement via its two forward motion sensors.  “I think this class is a good intro to robotics because it doesn’t require any former knowledge and gives you a feel for components and coding with other people,” he said. “I really like the small class setting.” Woll drew inspiration for Chase from one of his psychology classes, where students discussed motion tracking and vision.

Computer science major Ben Tucker he had several years of coding experience and was involved with robotics in high school. His teammate, fellow computer science major Gabriel Ang, only started computing courses in his final year of high school, but both of them felt the seminar would suit their interests and provide rare opportunities for hands-on work. “So far, it’s been really interesting to see our code interact with physical limitations like batteries — running low on energy and all that,” Tucker said.

The class tools were successful, said Devon Merrill, a Ph.D. student who was the teaching assistant for CSE 91. “I know I would have liked to take this class as a freshman,” he said.

The CS department has been very supportive of the class, Swanson said. “The idea is that students are learning different programming techniques and learning to program real things,” he said. “As they get more sophisticated in CSE 11, we match that here and start using more complicated techniques. I’m actually more interested in reaching out to those with less experience because classes can be a lot more intimidating for them.”

There was no shortage of interested students. After the seminar was introduced during CSE 11 lectures, 100 applicants had to be turned away as there were only two sections available. All of the Jacobs School initiatives, though, plan to scale up in the future to allow as many students as possible to work together in these seminars, perhaps opening up to other class levels as well.

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Students worked on their robots in teams. 

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Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899

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