Robots in Business School

Robots have long been a staple in science and engineering curricula because they can serve as an experimental platform for technologies ranging from machine vision, programming, and wireless communications, to mechanical drive train design. Moreover, because developing robots typically involves expertise in multiple areas, they are the perfect focus for team building exercises. It might surprise you that this is especially true for non-engineering types with relatively little hands-on experience with technology.

For example, I teach a course in technology and the future of healthcare at Harvard Medical School/MIT (http://www.hst921.org), and the majority of students are non-technical types studying for their MBA or degree in public health. Every year, I do my best to create a simulation of a small startup company to introduce students to the fast-paced culture of venture capital, stock options, and 80 hour work weeks.

This year, I split the class into two groups of 15 students, and assigned a CEO and CTO to each group. The CTOs were given a LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot kit (mindstorms.lego.com) and one hour to design, build, and program a robot that could traverse a distance of 32” and then stop just before an obstacle.

The students — left to their own devices — immediately self-organized. While the management wrangled with the VC, exchanging equity for cash to pay taxes and payroll, the technical group within each team did their best to determine the optimum physical configuration of their robot. In parallel with this activity, another group of students studied the programming language. Another group dealt with potential stumbling blocks, such as how to best measure 32 inches, given that the groups were not provided rulers. Others dealt with corporate espionage, either preventing it or instigating the activity.

When the hour was up, we had two working robots. One programmed for distance covered and the other used an ultrasonic sensor. Surprisingly, the robot based on the distance covered won by a millimeter. Both teams won in relation to the real goal of the exercise — experiencing the stress and uncertainty of a startup. One particular learning point was that both managerial and technical innovation were required to finish the complex task in the allotted time. Technical prowess and innovation alone would have been insufficient.

That both groups of students — inexperienced with the Mindstorms NXT or the National Instruments LabVIEW programming language — were able to complete their robots and compete in the competition is a testament to the maturity of the technology. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a daunting task to construct and program a working robot. It demands division of labor, management skill, and the ability to work under stress. However, what makes robotic competitions useful as a learning exercise is the breadth of knowledge required.

This sort of exercise wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, simply because it would have been almost impossible for a non-programmer to pick up C/C++ or even Basic in a few minutes, or a non-technical student to learn how to solder and handle sensitive components. The ‘plug and play’ nature of the Mindstorms NXT enabled students without prior experience to build robust robots in minutes.

The point is that robotics has a place in education outside of the traditional science and engineering application. This is in part because of the novelty of robotics and in part because even the simplest robots have multiple systems that can each serve as teaching points for everything from logic to physics.

Perhaps you teach a non-technical class where team-building is essential to success. If so, consider employing robotics as a convenient, highly visible focal point. Then share your experience with our readers.  SV

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