Three students gather around a white board to work on robotics. Two are at a table working on a robot, while one is writing on the white board.
Design by Priya Ganji.

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The University of Michigan undergraduate robotics program will open its doors this fall, becoming the first dedicated robotics department among the top 10 engineering schools in the United States. First announced by the College of Engineering in Fall 2021, the program is now open for enrollment for the upcoming fall semester after receiving approval from the Michigan Association of State Universities on June 2. The Michigan Daily sat down with students, professors and the incoming department chair to discuss the unique opportunities the program has to offer.

How did we get here? A brief history of Michigan Robotics

A University press release cited a figure from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stating that demand for robotics-educated professionals has continued to increase over the past few years, rising by 13% in 2018. Much like the industry at large, robotics at the University has emerged and grown rapidly within a relatively short period of time.

Engineering professor Dawn Tilbury, who will become the robotics department’s first chair on July 1, spoke with The Daily about the first steps taken toward establishing a robotics program at the University just over a decade ago in 2011.

“I was asked to chair a committee to think about the future of robotics at the University of Michigan,” Tilbury said. “That committee met and just proposed to the (University) in 2012 that we should have a graduate program in robotics, independent of any department; an institute that would bring the faculty together around research, and some shared space for the graduate students who are working in all these different departments around robotics to work together.”

The University introduced a Master’s and Ph.D. program in robotics through the Rackham Graduate School in 2014, which allowed students to obtain graduate degrees in the field for the first time. The U-M Robotics Institute was created in 2017 as a dedicated space for faculty who were interested in robotics. 

In the spring of 2021, the University opened the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, a 134,000-square-foot complex on North Campus dedicated to robotics research, assembly and education. The building currently houses the U-M Robotics Institute and will allow undergraduate students in the new degree program to design, build and test robots of all kinds.

After offering a handful of robotics courses to students at the University for a few years, the College of Engineering announced its undergraduate robotics program. According to a draft program guide for the 2022-2023 school year, incoming robotics students will be required to take a linear algebra course, 16 credits of core and intermediate robotics courses, a number of disciplinary breadth and depth courses, and a capstone course to complete the major.

Tilbury said the University has the resources to utilize a wide range of tools and technologies for its students in the program, allowing them to practice varying disciplines and techniques. 

“We’re big enough at Michigan to do what we call ‘full-spectrum robotics,’ meaning we do robots that fly, robots that walk, robots that drive, robots that swim,” Tilbury said. “I think we’re also setting a stage for inclusive robots, bringing in people from many different disciplines … It’s not just computer science or just mechanical engineering. It’s really the full spectrum of engineering disciplines that can contribute to robotics.”

An emerging discipline

Though robotics education has existed at the University in some capacity for several years, the dedicated focus on robotics in the undergraduate program is a first for a field which was previously taught as a subunit of other disciplines at the University.

Engineering professor Chad Jenkins, who is the associate director of the U-M Robotics Institute and has taught robotics courses at the University in the past, spoke with The Daily about the value of a robotics-focused education amid rising demand for robotics knowledge in the job market.

“We’re really trying to best meet the needs of our student body,” Jenkins said. “There is a clear call for autonomous technologies, artificial intelligence (and) controls in many different areas of society. And we were seeing that need from student demand … We want to be able to give them a way that, when they step on campus day one, they have an opportunity to continue that interest in robotics and see it in the undergraduate classroom.”

Rising Engineering sophomore Michael Robinson is planning to major in robotics and spoke about his experience with robotics course offerings at the University so far. 

“I’ve taken two of the 100-level classes offered, and I’m really enjoying (the program),” Robinson said. “I did robotics in high school, and it’s a lot of new stuff that I’ve been learning, but it’s more peeling back the curtain. Like in high school, you’d use these electronics and you’d go, ‘Okay, so I plugged this into this, and then it just works, great.’ These 100-level classes have been a lot more (about) how that thing works. And that’s been really, really awesome to work with.”

Robinson went on to discuss the unique opportunities that being a part of a pilot course brings, something that many robotics students will likely experience as courses are offered for the first time in the fall. 

“One of the classes I took had its pilot class, and I was a part of that,” Robinson said. “So the class is maybe 30, 20 people and having one-on-one office hours with the professor for the course every day, I wouldn’t trade anything for it. It was a really awesome experience being able to work directly with the source of knowledge.”

Rising Engineering junior Isabella Garcia, who plans to major in robotics, spoke about how the existence of the department can provide students like her with the dedicated support they need to plan and pursue a degree in robotics. 

“The professors have been really supportive and really helpful to anyone that has been interested in possibly switching to robotics,” Garcia said. “Professor Jenkins actually met with me one-on-one to make an outline of the few years that I have here, so that I could complete all the requirements for robotics and get the most out of it.” 

Garcia also said having a robotics department might help take some pressure off of robotics professors.

“Having the department exist is really helpful because the professors don’t have to be the whole support system,” Garcia said. “There can be advisors specifically for robotics.”

Interest in the new robotics program is not limited to students who plan to major in the field. Rising Engineering junior John Pye, who is currently pursuing degrees in aerospace engineering and computer engineering, said that taking robotics courses and working in a robotics laboratory has contributed to his studies and emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of engineering. 

“When I was taking that Robotics 101 class in freshman year, I was still a little undecided about what majors to pursue and where to focus my time,” Pye said. “I think that what drew me to Michigan Robotics is that you could take whatever knowledge you have and then pursue different projects almost day by day. You’re not really locking yourself into one specific thing. And you have a lot of surprising amounts, really, of carryover knowledge between projects that seemingly are not very related but actually are related when you get behind the scenes.”

Pye also discussed how the program provides previously unavailable opportunities for students interested in the field to hone in on disciplines within robotics.

“If you’re someone who’s interested in robotics, you almost have to cobble together your own major,” Pye said. “You’ll take classes from half a dozen different programs and maybe you miss some things along the way … Having a robotics department, it both opens up new courses that are specifically tailored towards robotics, (and), almost equally importantly, it gives guidance to students who are interested in learning about robotics and gives them the support that will help them to navigate this field.”

Diversity, equity and a human-centered approach

When discussing what sets U-M Robotics apart, Tilbury highlighted the program’s emphasis on “people-first robotics” by designing robots to meet human needs. 

“How robots can help people, I think that’s something that’s at the forefront of everything we’re doing in the robotics department,” Tilbury said.

The undergraduate curriculum includes the core robotics course Robotics 204: Introduction to Human-Robot Systems. As explained by Jenkins in a community meeting for the program, the gateway course will focus on the dynamic between robots and humans and will be required to declare the robotics major. 

Rising Engineering senior Connor Williams took ROB 204 in the Winter 2022 semester and spoke on a project regarding human-centered design as a particularly memorable highlight of the course.

“They actually brought in nurses from Michigan Medicine, and we were told to interview (them),” Williams said. “We learned about the real problems that the nurses these days deal with … and what they think might help their problems, and what technologies we could look into developing to try and suit their needs best.”

Tilbury went on to emphasize the importance of diversity in communities, industries and disciplines in robotics, especially when designing products that are aimed to help humans.

“You don’t want the robots that you design or build to be only useful for some small fraction of the population,” Tilbury said. “There’s so many more things that robots can do now that they weren’t able to do 30 years ago that, in order to take advantage of that full spectrum of opportunities, you need a diverse set of voices in the room.”

Robinson pointed out automated facial recognition as an example of where it is essential to seek out equitable representation in order to build technology that works for everyone, not just a certain population. Robinson said studies have found that facial identification AI may mistake people’s ethnicities and be prone to racial and gender biases.  

“It’s definitely important, especially as we move towards all these automated systems, that there is a program or there is someone on the team who can look at it and go, ‘Here’s the thing about that plan: it disproportionately affects people who look like me, so we should fix that and tweak it,’” Robinson said.

Rising Engineering sophomore Jardine Allen said having diverse voices be involved in the evolving robotics field helps encourage students to pursue their interests and ensure that no one is left behind by new technology.

“Having more people that look like you in a field that is growing is very important,” Allen said. “Robotics is definitely an emerging field: a lot of people will be working in robotics in the future. Because of that, it needs to be able to represent all people in order for it to be representative of all people.”

As Black and brown students continue to be underrepresented in STEM education, Jenkins said he wants to ensure that the University’s robotics program provides opportunities for students of all backgrounds to pursue an education in the field. 

“Talent is distributed equitably across society, but opportunity isn’t,” Jenkins said. “And so we want to make sure to try to engage students from all walks of society and give them a chance to be a part of robotics.”

Looking forward: the future of Michigan Robotics

As the robotics undergraduate program kicks off this fall, Jenkins said the University has a unique opportunity to shape the future of robotics in higher education, as well as the responsibility of ensuring that diversity and equity remain at the forefront of the discipline.

“We have the opportunity to help define what the academic discipline of robotics is,” Jenkins said. “An undergraduate curriculum really is how you shape the intellectual organization of your discipline … Five to ten years from now, I’m hoping that we don’t see diversity as a major crisis that we have to solve. We will have already made strides towards creating a more balanced and more representative classroom, research lab, development team and executive suite.”

Allen said she thinks the department will benefit the student body as a whole, not just those studying robotics. 

“I do think that the general student body will benefit from robotics,” Allen said. “Even just taking one course, it definitely opened my eyes to seeing how much is out there and how much technology that we can develop that will create new paths for other areas of exploration. Things that we didn’t think that we could study before are now possible.”

Williams said he looks forward to completing a degree in robotics in the upcoming school year and applying that knowledge in his future career.

“I am excited for my senior year to be very focused and application-based,” Williams said. “I’m very excited to actually develop practical skills through my coursework in my final year, which is unlike anything that I’ve had leading up to this … By switching to this robotics major, I feel like I’ve actually found my place here in the College of Engineering, where my professors know me personally.”

Williams said he is excited to see how incoming students are going to take advantage of the four-year curriculum.

“I’m probably going to be an IA for Robotics 102 this fall,” Williams said. “That class is like Engineering 101 but for roboticists, and it’s a first-year engineering class. And already, they’ll be working with robots … From what I understand, it’s supposed to be like that through all four years of the major, so I’m very excited for any incoming students because they’ll get robots all four years.”

Tilbury said she hopes the next few years will allow the department to create the best possible program for undergraduate students to obtain a full-spectrum education in robotics that puts people first.

“There will be a lot of work in the next three to five years to really build those courses,” Tilbury said. “What is the thing that we can be teaching in those courses that’s appropriate for undergraduates and also beneficial for their future careers? Over the decade, I would hope that people would look to Michigan Robotics as being the leader in full-spectrum robotics with a human-centered approach (and) placing people at the forefront of a robotics program.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Connor Williams participated in a project where students spoke with Michigan Medicine nurses took place in EECS 367: Introduction to Autonomous Robotics rather than ROB 204: Introduction to Human-Robot Systems. The article has been updated to reflect that change.

Summer News Editor Irena Li can be reached at irenayli@umich.edu.