WPI to Offer a PhD in Robotics Engineering

The Only University to Award a Bachelor's Degree in this Emerging Field, WPI Will Become the First University with Bachelor's, Master's and Doctoral Programs
April 06, 2010

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will become the only university to offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in robotics engineering with the addition of a PhD program starting this fall. WPI was the first university to offer a bachelor’s degree program in robotics engineering; a master’s program in the discipline was launched in 2009. Now WPI will be just the third U.S. university to offer a doctoral program in this emerging field.

"We are at the start of a new age of robotics," said WPI Provost John Orr. "Robots have been used successfully in manufacturing for some time, and they are now finding applications in a broad range of fields, from health care to defense to consumer products. In 2006, recognizing the need for a new breed of engineers to drive this emerging industry, WPI established an interdisciplinary bachelor's degree program—the first such program in the nation.

"With our master's and PhD programs, we have extended our leadership in robotics education and expanded our ability to prepare the professionals the robotics industry is demanding--from the engineers and entrepreneurs who will create new robotic systems and companies, to the researchers and theoreticians who will advance the science and technology behind robots and autonomous machines. These highly trained professionals will help the nation maintain its competitiveness in this critical field."

Students pursuing a PhD in robotics engineering at WPI will complete 60 credit hours of work beyond the master's degree (or 90 credit hours past the bachelor's) and undertake original research leading to a dissertation. The faculty for the program will come from the Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering departments. In all, more than 30 associated faculty and staff members will contribute their expertise.

WPI has been adding to its research strengths in robotics and robotic systems since the BS program was launched. New faculty with existing research programs in robotics have been among the 46 new full-time faculty members who have joined WPI over the past three years. They include Gregory Fischer, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who develops robotic surgical systems that can operate within the environment of an MRI scanner; Stephen Nestinger, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who develops intelligent mechatronic and embedded systems and multirobot systems; Charles Rich, professor of computer science, who studies human-robot interaction; and Sonia Chernova, assistant professor of robotic engineering (joining WPI this fall), who explores autonomous robots capable of operating alongside people in everyday environments.

Members of WPI’s Robotics Engineering Advisory Board, who represent some of the nation's leading robotics companies, helped shape the new PhD program. Several board members, including Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot Corp. and founder of CyPhy Works, David Kelley, president of Bluefin Robotics, represent firms in Massachusetts, which boasts more than 150 robotics companies, institutions, and research labs that employ more than 150,000 people.

In addition to expanding its graduate offerings in robotics engineering, WPI has sponsored programs that foster the use of robots to solve important societal problems and encourage consideration of the societal implications of this new area of technology. In 2009, WPI held the national Robotics Innovations Competition and Conference. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the competition challenged undergraduate and graduate students to engineer innovative robotic solutions that improve the quality of life. On April 10 WPI will sponsor RoboEthics, a symposium exploring the ethical issues raised by rapid advancement of robotics.

WPI has also broadened its commitment to pre-college outreach programs that build excitement for robotics and other STEM (science, technology, mathematics, and engineering) fields. For example, the university, which sponsors two Worcester high school teams in the FIRST robotics competition created by advisory board member Dean Kamen, WPI Class of 1973, recently inaugurated a new regional FIRST competition held on the WPI campus.