More Than Machines

TekBots bring students together

Educating tomorrow’s electrical engineers has come to this: Teamwork, creativity and ownership are as important as the principles of theory and design. All get rolled into a box that first-year Oregon State University students receive in their introduction to the field. Inside are circuit and charger boards, wheels, a steel roller ball and assorted electrical components. Batteries and instructions are not included. Working in teams, students must put the parts together, learning leadership and problem-solving skills as they go.

These “TekBots” are far more than clever machines. They are the students’ companions through four years of lectures and labs. From course to course, year to year, students transform their TekBots with advanced electrical engineering concepts. Don Heer, director of the TekBots program, calls them a “platform for learning,” because they give students a strong base for their educational journey.

“The TekBots provide context and connectivity between topics,” says Terri Fiez, director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They give students the big picture.” Success arrives, she adds, when students get excited about an upcoming course that will help them solve a problem or add a new feature to their TekBot.

“It’s their own robot,” adds Heer. “They put their own money, their own time into it. It’s their personal expression of what they’ve done. It embodies their knowledge.”

Some students develop a fondness for their bot, giving it a name, such as Billy or Toby. Katy Humble called hers FlutterBot. The 2005 OSU graduate added motor-controlled wings and decorated them with lights. Her parents, Larry and Dona Nixon of Yachats, have put FlutterBot on the mantle like a trophy.

In 2000, Tektronix, the Beaverton, Oregon, high-tech manufacturer, gave OSU a $500,000 grant to start the program. Humble was part of the first corps of undergraduates hired to develop the kits. She worked as a teaching assistant, building her confidence as she gave classroom presentations and helped her peers solve problems.

“TekBots is all about debugging something that doesn’t work. It’s a constant problem in industry,” says Humble, who credits her TekBots experience with helping her to land a job with Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon. Today, she continues to mentor students with her employer’s full support.

Over the years, the students’ bots have taken on personalities. There was one that could balance on two wheels, like the Segway Human Transporter. Another morphed into a four-legged walking creature with individual motors controlling each appendage. And then there was the giant TekBot that grew to the size of a wheelbarrow.

And it is a program run substantially by students, Heer adds. “All of the labs have been made by undergraduates. All of the materials have been designed by undergraduates. All of the ‘TAing’ for the fundamental TekBots courses is done by undergraduates. It creates a culture where they are helping each other.”

The National Science Foundation and high-tech firms have supported the program, and OSU has sold kits to other universities, including Texas A&M, Rochester Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Fukuoka Institute of Technology in Japan.

The program has also fostered personal relationships. Katy Humble met her husband-to-be Ben while she was assembling TekBots kits. They married in 2006 and live in Beaverton, where Ben works for Tektronix.

“We say that TekBots brings people together,” laughs Ben. “That is really true for us.”

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