Robotics Lab

‘It’s a really cool place’: UTM undergrads get hands-on experience with new robotics teaching lab

Laura Maldonado beams as she describes her first day learning in U of T Mississauga’s Undergraduate Robotics Teaching Laboratory.

“It’s a really cool place,” she says, as she proudly takes out her phone to show a video of one of the lab’s robots in action. “We actually play with these robots and get hands-on experience.”

The computer science specialist student was among the first group of undergrads in the third-year Fundamentals of Robotics class to use the new lab, which officially opened its doors on Sept. 7.

Professor Jessica Burgner-Kahrs, the lab’s visionary, says it will be primarily used for computer science students who can take robotics courses in their third and fourth years.

The lab is also open to the whole U of T community – including graduate students in computer science, mechanical engineering and aerospace studies, says Burgner-Kahrs, who is an associate professor with the Departments of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, Computer Science, and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, as well as the founding director of the Continuum Robotics Laboratory, and associate director of the U of T Robotics Institute.

She adds that it will also be a resource for the U of T Robotics Institute.

“I’m very thankful and very grateful that we now have this teaching lab for students, and you can tell by the students’ faces how happy they are,” she says. “I think it’s, by far, the most up-to-date teaching lab I’ve seen anywhere in Canada.”

Burgner-Kahrs, who also teaches Maldonado’s Fundamentals of Robotics class, says the lab includes revolutionary types of robots called “cobots,” or “collaborative robots.” These types of robots have become more prevalent in recent years and have multiple movable joints and safety sensors so they can safely interact with humans.  

“They are more used for co-operative tasks, where humans and robots work alongside (each other),” explains Burgner-Kahrs, adding that they can be used to automate some tasks or perform more delicate tasks. “Robotics engineering is one of the fastest growing job markets, and all these new jobs will entail being familiar with these collaborative robots. It will put our students at an advantage in the job market.”

Sven Lilge, the Fundamentals of Robotics course’s TA, says the lab offers a rare opportunity for undergraduate students to learn what a robot is and how it works through practical experience.

“What’s really unique is we have the ability for all of our students in our class, which is more than 60 students, to work hands-on with a robot,” he says. “It’s really a game-changer.”

Maldonado says the lab is also helping her apply learning from previous math courses – a subject that she admits isn’t her strongest.

“I used to think, why are we learning linear algebra? Why are we learning calculus? What’s the point of this?” she laughs. “Now, I understand that I need to know how the robot moves. I need to understand three dimensions. I can physically see it with the robot.”

Maldonado adds that she feels lucky to be able to use a robotics lab during her undergraduate degree.

“The only way (students before me) really got to work on robotic stuff was if they maybe got research positions, or maybe they tried getting some internships – which was hard if you didn’t have physical experience,” she says. “Now, we get this hands-on experience. I think it’s a privilege.”