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Robotics day shows hope for industry

By Ben Atlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 15, 2013

Michigan Robotics Day not only provided students, industry and non-profits the opportunity to showcase their work, but it also gave the state’s leaders a chance to emphasize how important robotics will be for Michigan’s economic future.

The third-annual Robotics Day event, held as a part of National Robotics Week, was held Monday at Michigan Stadium’s Jack Roth Stadium Club and was co-hosted by the University and the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences.

Gov. Rick Snyder delivered the keynote address at the event and said he wants Michigan to be at the forefront in developing robotics technology. To do so, more students need to be inspired by science, technology, engineering, and math education and its related efforts, he said.

Snyder added that robotics technology will play an important role in the state’s and a variety of industries’ efforts with autonomous vehicles — new cars in development that can operate automatically without human input. The governor called these autonomous vehicle programs “the gift that keeps on giving,” in terms of their ability to foster economic and job growth.

Given the state’s historic background in manufacturing and engineering, Snyder said he believes that Michigan has been primed to become a very important part of this burgeoning sector of technology.

“The building of this technology and the job opportunities for people in these fields is going to be outstanding,” Snyder said. “We have too many open positions today, and we need to make sure we fill that pipeline with great, young people.”

In his State of the State address in January, Snyder spoke about his desire to get autonomous vehicle legislation off the ground. Michigan Sen. Mike Kowall (R–White Lake) authored Senate Bill 169, which would allow vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to test self-driving vehicles on public roads. It passed unanimously in the transportation committee and will be on the Senate floor this week. Kowall said he hopes that the legislature will have it ready to be signed by June.

Kowall added that he believes that automated vehicles could have an immensely positive economic effect on the automotive industry, and he hopes that much of that growth occurs in Michigan. In order for that to happen, he said the state must continue to invest in education, research and development, and likened the autonomous vehicle innovation to what Henry Ford did with the assembly line.

“This is opening up a whole new frontier for where transportation is going to go in the future,” Kowall said. “It’s exciting to be on the forefront of it.”

Since the event’s inception in 2011, attendance at Michigan Robotics Day has doubled each year. More than 500 people registered for this year’s event.
Rick Jarman, president and CEO of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, said in an interview that the event was created three years ago to “energize the entire ecosystem of robotics in the state” and provide “an environment where collaboration can occur.”

Jarman added that while Michigan has a strong manufacturing and engineering background, it will still have to compete on a global level for commercial opportunities in automotive vehicles.

“We all have a lot more to do before they play ‘Hail to the Victors’ for us,” Jarman said.

Despite all of these possibilities, Snyder emphasized that success on these frontiers will depend on the state’s ability to improve and expand STEM education. One way of doing so, he said, is to rethink how these classes are taught. He advocated for student-centered learning models that stress more interactive, hands-on education.

Snyder added that it was important to get young children over the stigma that STEM subjects are too hard.

“We need to help people that have that barrier understand that this can be fun,” Snyder said. “Being a nerd can be fun, folks.”

Because of the high costs associated with STEM education, Snyder said it’s important for the government to continue to invest in it, adding that he believes there will be more private-public partnerships that commit to this type of education in the future.

Many K-12 students involved in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology program — which designs programs that motivate young people to pursue opportunities in STEM fields — attended the event.

Jarman said he was encouraged by the success of the FIRST program but believes there’s more progress to be made in drawing in young students to the STEM fields.

“I think there’s a whole generation of technology people that we’re going to need in this space, not only for creating it, but also for maintaining it,” Jarman said.

Jarman said NASA has also made efforts in inspiring scientific curiosity in students.

Engineering junior Jordan Cassidy, a member of the Robotic Exploration of Space Team — a part of the College of Engineering’s Student Space Systems Fabrications Laboratory — is taking part in a NASA-sponsored competition that requires the team to design and build a lunar excavator, which uses autonomous driving systems. Cassidy and the rest of the team presented their project at Monday’s event.

“I think that there should be more (robotics) opportunities in classrooms,” Cassidy said. “Hands-on skills, practical engineering abilities, good teamwork, planning, the design process — all of that goes into not just robotics, but anything.”

Once there’s a greater commitment to these programs in our education system, Jarman said, much bigger opportunities will be on the horizon.

“We’re on the precipice of a revolution that will rival society-changing innovations such as the automobile, personal computer and the Internet,” Jarman said. “You’ll be hard pressed to identify any facet of our daily lives that won’t be impacted by this technology. The technology is out there; all we’ve got to do is take the next step.”