THE IMPACT OF ROBOTICS COMPETITIONS ON THE PREPARATION OF ENGINEERING STUDENTS

M. Ben Ghalia

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UNITED STATES)
The fast growing market for robots worldwide and the new robotics industries that are being created have led to an increased supply of jobs. This opportunity, however, presents a challenge for these new specialized robotics industries that need to fill these positions with new types of skilled workforce in order to sustain their growth and remain competitive. In the United States, the Science and Engineering (S&E) proportion of all university undergraduate degrees has been decreasing. Robotics is an interdisciplinary field of S&E that includes electrical and electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science. Hence, it is important for strategies to be developed to transform S&E education to train future engineers and scientists in robotics in order to guarantee a continuing future supply of a skilled workforce to meet the increasing number of job opportunities in the robotics sector. Universities and education agencies play an important role in preparing the needed talent to meet the demand of the technology industries. A comprehensive and cohesive educational program that engages students in S&E must become the top mission of educators. Robotics presents a unique opportunity to motivate students from kindergarten to college to pursue S&E careers. Several robotics competitions are being held worldwide for students at different learning stages with the underlying goal is to inspire and motivate students to pursue S&E studies and careers.

Robotics is an interdisciplinary field that includes electrical and electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science. This has led several programs to adopt design courses for their robotics programs. In these design courses, students are given open-ended problems and are required to design their own robots. This practice exposes students to real-world problems and helps them develop advanced skills in robotics.

Fifteen years ago, we decided to include the annual challenge proposed by the by Region 5 of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the world’s largest technical professional organizations, as one of the capstone design projects for our senior students. Students who are interested in robotics are given the opportunity not only to design and build their own robots, but also participate in the regional robotics competition and compare their designs to those completed by students from other universities. Because the theme and requirements of the annual robotics competition change every year, this has allowed new student teams to come up with their own new designs. Several studies have emphasized the importance of design competitions as a tool for student learning. Competitions motivate students to excel in their designs and expose them to real-world scenarios where engineering companies strive to develop innovative new products and compete to outperform their rivals.

This paper presents initiatives taken at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley robotics laboratory to educate and train engineering students in the area of robotics. We provide examples of our previous participation in robotics competitions and discuss the educational values that robotics competitions have on the preparation of engineering students.