"It is never 'not my job'." Professor Michael Gennert on Robotics Engineering at WPI

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass is a small science and engineering university more in the company of flexible, innovative institutions like Harvey Mudd College and Olin College than the tech behemoths MIT or CalTech. Focusing on interdisciplinary and practical education, last fall they kicked off the country's first undergraduate robotics engineering program. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Michael Gennert, the current director of the Robotics Engineering Department. Prof. Gennert was kind enough to answer many of the questions I've had about the major since I learned about it last year. Read on for the interview -- and high school students, take note! An application to WPI may be in your future!

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How is this curriculum different from the more traditional engineering majors like mechanical, electrical, or aero/astro? What specifically will make robotics engineers better suited to their careers than with a different background?

Robotics Engineering is similar to Aero/Astro in that it covers a wide range of topics and is an integrative, systems discipline. It is no coincidence that our core curriculum consists of Introduction to Robotics followed by Unified Robotics 1-4, similar in philosophy to the MIT Aero and Astro Unified Engineering 1-4 sequence. I want us to graduate engineers who are comfortable machining parts, wiring a board, or writing code, as well as conducting rigorous modeling, analysis, and design.

Each of our robotics courses includes elements of CS, ECE, and ME. The courses are team-taught by faculty from these departments. Consequently, students see that there are no boundaries in engineering. We don't just talk about it; we practice it. What matters is what do you need to solve the problem. It is never "not my job". In this sense, Robotics Engineering is good old-fashioned engineering, not overly compartmentalized like so many fields are today.

Let me add that we did manage to include a one course requirement in Entrepreneurship. Although it is a small part of the program, we believe that it will be immensely valuable to graduates' understanding of the business contexts within which they will have to operate. Interestingly, although this was the hardest part of the curriculum to win approval from the faculty, industry is very excited about it.

Why was the major introduced? What led to it? Was it feedback from industry, from academia, from prospective students?

We saw that robotics was going to become an area of increasing importance. The rapidly decreasing cost of robotics components - computers, memory, communications, sensors - creates a lot of "push" on the supply side. Couple that with the "pull" on the demand side - increasing national needs for manufacturing, defense, health, consumer products, elder care, and entertainment - and we get an industry that is on the verge of exploding. But no one field provides a broad enough background for robotics. One has to know a bit of everything and be willing and able to learn whatever you need that you don't know yet. Clearly the intellectual basis for robotics lies in Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. We are very fortunate to have extremely solid programs in all three at WPI, in fact, one might call them our flagship departments. WPI has a tradition of close interaction among departments and minimal barriers to collaboration. So members of each department just got together and figured out what a robotics program would look like. We quickly realized that robotics - we ended up calling our program Robotics Engineering (RBE) - was a perfect fit for WPI and our project-based curriculum. Also, the opportunity to be leaders with the nation's first robotics undergraduate degree was pretty attractive.

The path to Robotics Engineering was paved by the launch two years earlier of our Interactive Media and Game Development program. IMGD combines Computer Science and Humanities & Arts, two very different departments. So we had already figured out how to assemble multi-disciplinary majors. IMGD went from conceptualization to final approval in about 14 months; Robotics Engineering, a more difficult major to assemble, took only 10.

The response from industry, academia, and students has been overwhelming. Industry craves excellent talent and is very eager to get in on the ground floor of this program. Everyone I asked to join the RBE Advisory Board has accepted. My colleagues at other universities sometimes wonder how we did it and how we did it so fast. The simple answer is that it took a lot of hard work and constant communication - and still does! - aided by the fact that most WPI faculty members actually know and like each other. Many alumni wish that we had a robotics major when they attended. Student response has been great. Our business plan for the program identified 20-25 students each year as the break-even point. We counted 80 RBE majors last year, our very first year and enrollment so far this year is way ahead of last year's.

Carnegie Mellon University of course was a pioneer in offering a robotics engineering graduate degree. Did they influence the way the WPI major was developed? Were you influenced by any other academic programs, organizations, or corporations in framing the coursework requirements?

We looked at the CMU graduate curriculum, Georgia Tech's Threads model, and others. CMU has a very impressive graduate robotics program, but its goals are different from ours. We are aiming to give the best undergraduate engineering education possible. Schools that have robotics minors, concentrations, and similar programs will not be able to give students as rich an experience in robotics as we will, although there are many fine engineering programs that include robotics.

We were influenced by accreditation and designed the program to be accreditable. The national engineering accreditation body, ABET, has criteria for accrediting engineering programs, including specific criteria for each engineering field. Of course, they do not have criteria (yet!) for Robotics Engineering, so we have tried to make the program accreditable under General Engineering. We can go up for accreditation after we've graduated our first student; with four senior RBE majors (they changed majors last year) that should happen this Spring.

Speaking of graduate degrees, I'm looking at grad school some time soon (as are, I'm sure, many of us who were too late for a robotics undergrad degree and are now intensely jealous). Any plans for WPI to offer a graduate program in robotics?

We are planning M.S. and Ph.D. programs right now. We plan to finalize the M.S. program this fall. Although we have only one year of experience with the robotics B.S. degree, we would like the cohort of RBE sophomores to be able to stay for our 5-year B.S. / M.S program. We are looking at several tracks for the M.S. degree: a thesis-based track that is especially appropriate for continuing on for the Ph.D., and non-thesis tracks for B.S. / M.S. students and working professionals. But the non-thesis tracks will still have significant design experiences - Robotics Engineering is definitely not a purely theoretical program at WPI, no matter what level degree. One nice thing about the M.S. is that we can fill in the subjects that did not fit into the 4-year degree, while adding Systems Engineering and other advanced topics. After that, the Ph.D. curriculum almost writes itself.

Looking at entry-level openings in industry, they're still hiring EEs, MEs, and software engineers, not robotics engineers. Do you anticipate any challenges for these students meeting industry expectations while not having the subject-specific depth of their peers? Will industry have to change their expectations to accommodate these students?

We certainly will have to educate employers about this major. Companies such as iRobot, Foster-Miller, BAE, Brooks Automation, and others, are very supportive from the top down and are likely to target robotics majors. When we see that a company is advertising for CS, ECE, and ME majors on campus, we can ask if they want to include RBE majors. RBE majors might not have quite as much depth as others, but they should make up for that with their breadth of knowledge, Where else can you find a fresh graduate who can talk intelligently about Object-Oriented Design, Fourier Transforms, Nyquist criteria, Reynolds numbers and Young's modulus?

While our graduates will be well-suited for the growing robotics industry, they will also be highly qualified to work in fields that are not traditionally thought of as robotic. For example, the principles and technologies involved in detecting incoming projectiles, assessing their threat levels, and deploying countermeasures follow the same sense-compute-actuate paradigm as robotics.

What high school preparation do you recommend for students interested in robotics engineering that may be different from other engineering tracks?

Honestly, it is the same as any other engineering discipline. The most important thing is a passion for the subject and that is perhaps the one thing we cannot teach. Other than that, I look for students who have strong math skills, can think analytically and creatively, and are highly literate and communicate well. Come here with that, and we'll teach the rest. Of course, being well-read and knowing a lot of math and science helps, too.

Thanks, Prof. Gennert! And be sure to check out WPI's Robotics Engineering homepage for more information.

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