Robotics gains traction as a potential major

April 7, 2013, 11:49 p.m.

The chance to declare as a robotics major could be just around the corner for interested students, as a proposal led by Eric Smalls ’16 continues to gain traction among undergraduates and faculty alike.

Smalls, founder of the Stanford Robotics Club, initially planned to pursue robotics as an individually designed major within the School of Engineering. Surprised by the high level of student interest in robotics, however, he framed the creation of a robotics major as an opportunity that would appeal both to curious students seeking to formalize their learning and to those already experienced in the field.

“There was a group of students who had the opportunity to do robotics in high school, but there were also a large amount of students who had not had that experience,” Smalls said about the robotics club. “There was a lot of teaching, but not enough teachers.”

Having conferred with Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Allison Okamura M.S. ’96 Ph.D. ’00, Smalls learned that an intake of approximately 10 interested students per year would be required to sustain the new major. A survey sent out to several mailing lists to gauge student interest and solicit feedback on Smalls’ proposed major requirements produced around 30 interested students as well as advice on making the major more inclusive and broadly appealing.

Smalls also solicited feedback from Professor of Electrical Engineering Robert Dutton, who said he was impressed by Smalls’ determination to make Stanford “a magnet attracting people with robotics interests.”

Though Dutton wouldn’t estimate how many students would be interested in a robotics major, he expressed confidence that a robotics major would receive serious consideration if Smalls can demonstrate sustained student interest.

“Student interest, historically, has been very effective in getting academic departments to move in directions that are more aligned with student interest,” Dutton said. “Eric is stirring things up by trying to find students. If there are enough students with interest and that interest can be defined in a way that a better curricula can be structured, I’m sure that is going to happen.”

Evan Clark ’14, a Robotics Club member, estimated that approximately 10 to 15 students would declare a robotics major during the program’s first year, though he expected the number to increase over time.

Though Clark is currently majoring in computer science (CS), he said that he would prefer to pursue a robotics major if it were established in the near future.

“Having a dedicated robotics major would be awesome because you could get advice about those classes, you wouldn’t have to take some of the classes you didn’t want to and you could spend a lot more time playing with robots,” Clark said.

Smalls, Dutton and Clark acknowledged that elements of a robotics curriculum are currently offered in several departments– including CS, mechanical engineering (ME) and electrical engineering (EE)– but emphasized the value of a cohesive and comprehensive robotics major.

“I think as more students move away from a single track in CS or EE or ME, they really see the value of getting a taste of the three flavors and really getting a sense of how applicable those skills are to almost anything,” Smalls said.

Clark agreed that a multidisciplinary approach to robotics could help students gain a more complete understanding of the subject.

“You can approach it from a theoretical control side with CS, and it’s a lot of algorithms and planning, but you aren’t building robots per se,” Clark said. “You can also approach it from the mechanical engineering side, but you’re doing the mechanical design and you don’t really know how to program [robots], so it’s kind of hard if you want to do both to walk that line well.”

Clark, Smalls and Dutton all emphasized the unique role that students have played in shaping the plan for a robotics major, which Smalls hopes will inspire more students to consider the program.

“Just being an organic and student-done thing, it makes it like it’s what we want [and] not what the University is telling us to do,” Smalls said. “It makes it more like a conversation among students about what we want from robotics and what robotics can be at Stanford, and I think that’s really important.”

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