Student Project Aims to Use Hands-on Learning & Teamwork to Teach Robotics
For three years running, WPI undergraduate students have played a major role in advancing Albania’s first high school robotics club. The first team of students launched the robotics club program, the second team expanded and enhanced the program, and most recently, the third team took the club a step further by introducing its members to one of WPI’s signature activities: the Savage Soccer robotics competition.
The most recent team includes robotics engineering major Nathan Beeten, mechanical engineering major Josephine Leingang, management engineering major Jacob St. Germain, and electrical & computer engineering major Benjamin Titus. Like their predecessors, the students conducted the work as part of their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP)—a project that requires teams to delve into a problem that matters to real people—at WPI’s Albania Project Center.
All of the projects were sponsored by the Harry Fultz Institute, Albania’s first vocational high school, and were overseen by Enxhi Jaupi, electronics professor and head of the robotics club at the school. Jaupi says that the robotics competition was the next logical step in the institute’s fruitful collaboration with WPI.
“The introduction to robotics was successful through the first project, and in the second project students made several wonderful robotics prototypes,” said Jaupi. “When I heard about Savage Soccer, I was fascinated and thought we could adapt it here as the third project.”
In order to prepare students for the competition, the WPI team began by leading lessons on fundamental and advanced robotics topics. They did not have to go far to find inspiration, as they based much of their content on courses from WPI, and much of their teaching techniques on the project-based approach integral to their own education.
“We first taught brief lessons to give students an understanding of some basic topics, and from there we gave them the opportunity to put those topics to use in a hands-on way,” says Beeten. “We spent our time moving from group to group, making sure that everyone understood the lesson and had an opportunity to learn the topics that we had presented.”
Fortunately, the high school students proved to be more than up to the task, and the WPI team quickly realized they would need to modify their lessons.
"The students were very passionate about learning as much as they could from us and as a result they picked up the material we were teaching very quickly," says St. Germain. "That meant that we had to think on the fly and be flexible about our lesson plans. I gained a lot of respect for teachers and all the preparation that they put into making lesson plans that are both engaging and informational."
While the high school students started putting their knowledge to work, the WPI team focused on adapting the Savage Soccer competition for the club, making modifications to accommodate the limited resources and reduced number of players, at just six teams of four students each. They chose to modify the 2014 Savage Soccer game by building a smaller field in which teams faced off with each other by using their robots to pick up ping pong balls and place them into a centrally located goal box
Students were encouraged to be creative and given broad leeway in designing and building their robots, with several making use of technologies such as Computer Aided Design software and 3-D printers. For many students, the project was also one of their first opportunities to work intensely with others on a team, something that WPI students encouraged them to explore by writing team charters and reflecting on their experiences.
The actual competition took place on the last day that WPI students were in Albania. Teams were cheered on by an audience including the headmaster and several faculty and staff members from Harry Fultz Institute, other WPI students, and project advisors. While only one team won in the end, all of the students reported that they were thrilled to participate and appreciated the opportunity to challenge themselves.
“Overall the competition was a great learning experience for the students,” says St. Germain. “Four of the six teams had robots that were ready to compete, which was something to be proud of considering they only had seven weeks to learn robotics concepts and construct a working robot. It was a great celebration of the student’s accomplishments.”
Going forward, the club plans to host a Savage Soccer match every year, and Jaupi also hopes that students will one day be able to participate in the FIRST robotics program and even compete internationally. In the meantime, he notes the club has already had a major impact, as several of his students have gone on to study advanced engineering at prestigious schools including WPI.
"Three of my students are now at WPI in their second year. What they saw here in the robotics lab, what they made by their own hands, they loved it and wanted to proceed by educating themselves at WPI," says Jaupi. "They even came back last summer to introduce us to what they have learned so far. They gave me a picture of Atlas that is now hanging in my lab!”
WPI team member Joseph St. Germain says that working with the high school also gave him a new perspective and served as a source of inspiration.
“Throughout the project I gained a new understanding of how lucky I am to have the opportunities I have here in the United States. It made all of my problems seem so small compared to the challenges that these students face every day,” says St. Germain. “I was really inspired by the true determination and drive that these students had to learn as much as they could from us in order to make a difference in the world.