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The robotics curriculum is on a growth trajectory

University Business, November 2013

Five years ago, there were no universities offering an undergraduate major in robotics. Today, “robotics is a high-growth area,” says Mike Gennert, the director of the Robotics Engineering Program at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a 5,700-student university in Massachusetts.

“Nationally, we are seeing a growing number of undergraduate majors, and the number of grad programs has doubled or tripled in the last few years,” he says.

The field of robotics is expanding as the technology becomes more commercially viable.

“Companies are constantly looking to hire students who have studied robotics,” says Howie Choset, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, the largest and oldest robotics program in the U.S.

“There’s an incredible pressure [in the engineering field] for students to have an undergraduate robotics education,” he says. As a result, universities are taking note of the increased demand for robotics-literate students. Many, including WPI, are introducing new undergraduate concentrations and majors in robotics, while expanding opportunities for students to be involved in practical research.

In 2007, WPI rolled out the nation’s first undergraduate major in engineering robotics. “We saw this transformation in the field, that robotics were becoming more and more practical, and we wanted to get in on it,” says Gennert.

“We have a lot of hands-on projects in the program, culminating in a senior capstone project,” he says. “A lot of undergraduates are able to publish papers, participate in conferences, and develop ideas that may be commercially viable.”

For a robotics program to be cutting edge, it must attract and maintain skilled researchers and professors. “One way we keep our edge is to maintain high standards for faculty and staff,” says Carnegie Mellon’s Choset. Since robotics research and education requires tremendous resources, larger schools with state-of-the-art facilities also have an edge. “Our size is also a major benefit,” says Choset. “We have hundreds of faculty doing research and that provides many opportunities for collaboration.”

As demand for robotics education grows, university curriculums will continue to develop and adapt. “One component of robotics education that will emerge is teaching how to interact with consumers and nurture entrepreneurism,” says Choset. He also thinks that more robotics courses will develop online platforms to allow students to take part remotely.

Gennert predicts that as costs for equipment and computing power come down, robotics programs will spread more rapidly to smaller universities. “Robotics is one of the most attractive fields out there today, and I fully expect to see a lot more programs starting up at many more universities,” he says.

Avi Asher-Shapiro is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.