Open-Source Platform Transforming Robotics Engineering Education
It’s been a year since young roboticists from around the world were introduced to the small open-source device that could revolutionize robotics engineering and help democratize global STEM access. And what a year it’s been.
During the 2022 FIRST Global Challenge in Geneva, Switzerland, WPI and DEKA Research & Development Corp. distributed nearly 200 beta versions of the Experiential Robotics Platform (XRP), a kit that makes it possible for novice engineers to build and program a simple, powerful, and affordable robot. The small but mighty device even caught the eye of music superstar will.i.am, a staunch STEM supporter who attended the event.
“We started with the idea that we would create this prototype for an open-source engineering education platform,” says DEKA chief development officer David Rogers, who worked hand in hand with WPI’s Brad Miller to debut the original XRP in 2022. Miller is a senior fellow with longtime experience collaborating with DEKA and FIRST Robotics through WPI’s Robotics Resource Center. “In Geneva we got a lot of validation that this kind of product was something people were excited about.”
The excitement surrounding XRP followed WPI folks back to the States and the project really took off. WPI and DEKA developed new partnerships with Raspberry Pi and ST Microelectronics to supply the microcontroller and the inertial measurement unit (IMU) chips, respectively, as well as with SparkFun Electronics to manufacture the electronics. And with DigiKey distributing finished devices to secondary schools, community colleges, and universities across the country, educators have begun integrating the XRP into STEM courses.
Officials from both DEKA, based in Manchester, N.H., and WPI are starting educational endeavors in their own backyards.
Thanks to a state grant, high school students at an engineering-focused charter school in Manchester are pioneering what Rogers calls a “community manufacturing concept.” The principal at Spark Academy gave up his office so that teacher Dan Larochelle ’95 could set up two dozen 3D printers, which students are using to manufacture XRPs that get shipped around the globe, all while getting valuable hands-on experience.
At the same time, FIRST New Hampshire is working with leading STEM educators from across the state to establish teacher training and professional development workshops centered around XRP. The external relations team at WPI is also exploring pilot programs with Worcester Public Schools.
“The XRP is leveling the playing field for STEM education and I’m proud that WPI is one of the founding partners of this project,” says WPI President Grace Wang.
Makers outside the classroom are getting in on the action, too. Nearly 2,500 units have sold to hobbyists, educators, and suppliers since the commercial units went on the market in August, according to Dave Ortendahl, WPI’s executive director of corporate partnerships, who is managing the university’s role in this project.
The current version of the XRP looks and works much the same as the original kits, which were 3D-printed in WPI’s Innovation Studio. Thanks to some design innovations that happened at WPI, however, the manufacturing is now much simpler. A single-piece chassis has replaced the original body made up of many separate parts, allowing users to spend less time constructing the unit before they start programming.
That programming is key. It’s the difference between building and engineering. It’s also the part of the project where WPI’s expertise lies, and Annie Hughes ’21 will consult to build out curriculum that one day will accompany the XRP kits.
During an event this week hosted by the British Consulate in Boston, representatives from WPI and DEKA will thank regional educators and politicians for being early adopters of the XRP. Potential new partners will also be introduced to the device in an effort to galvanize additional interest in this groundbreaking technology.