Chad Hobson ’17 and Zach Betterton ’17 spent last semester building one device after another: a traffic light with a button pedestrians can push for a safe crossing. A fan that can make a golf ball hover at a steady height. A set of sensors that graph real-time temperature data on a computer screen.
The crowning achievement of their electronics class was a robot that can “hear” its way around obstacles in a simple maze.
They joked about nicknaming the robot “Wall-E” because its ultrasonic sensor resembles the eyes of the robot character from a popular Pixar film. The sensor connects to an Arduino circuit board that controls several motors mounted to a chassis the students took out of an old robot. Ordinarily, the robot goes straight forward. When the ultrasonic sensor detects an object within one foot ahead, the robot pauses and the sensor turns to the left and the right to determine which direction might be clear.
Throughout the semester, their challenges helped them learn about teamwork, problem solving, and how to apply what they have learned in the classroom to impact something in the physical world.
Physics professor Dr. William Roach created a course on electronics to help students combine what they learn about basic circuits in one class and programming in another. The class explored “How you make software talk to hardware to actually do something useful, and how you go about automating a task,” he said.
Chad has worked on research projects with computer programming, but he had not built a device before. “Most programming I’ve done has all been about generating some numbers on the screen,” he said. “Typing some code and actually doing some physical work was really cool to me.”
Zach, who plans to become a teacher, was grateful for the chance to work on hands-on project that he could use in his own classroom someday. Being one of two students in the course, he also valued the opportunity to work closely with Dr. Roach and learn more about developing a curriculum.
The project tested the students’ ability to solve problems. “The first step when we got a project each week was sitting down and figuring out what you need to code,” Zach said. “The Arduino will do a lot of things, but you’ve got to tell it everything it needs to do.”
Chad said that working with Zach helped him improve his ability to work on a team — something that internships have taught him will be very important in real-world applications. “No matter where you go, you’re going to work in a team,” he said. “If you go into a job where you would be doing automation, everything that’s going to be automated now is difficult to automate, so it requires teams. This was a good chance to learn how to program alongside someone else working on the same thing.”
During the fall semester, Zach and Chad got the robot to work in a very simple maze made with a few textbooks propped up on a table. In a complicated labyrinth, the robot likely would get lost or perhaps turn around and exit where it entered. This semester, Zach is working to enhance the robot with maze-solving algorithms, allowing it to recall its path and find its way through a full maze.