With a new type of engineering class, ECE Professor Magnus Egerstedt has a chance to educate thousands. Can he pull it off?
Jul 19, 2013 | Atlanta, GA
Ed. note: This story appears in the first issue of Georgia Tech Engineers, the new magazine from the College of Engineering. To request a copy, please email the editor at email@example.com
Story by Lyndsey Lewis
Photos by Zach Porter
There is a problem with the robots.
Professor Magnus Egerstedt eyes them with dismay. His robots, rotund little things that wouldn’t look out of place in a Roomba ad, are misbehaving. They’re crawling toward two silver cases in the middle of the floor, but just before reaching them, they’re supposed to sense the obstacles and skitter away.
The demonstration is the highlight of Egerstedt’s lecture; it is the center ring of this particular circus. A professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Egerstedt is teaching a class on robot control, and the point of the course tends to be lost if the robots in question are going rogue.
Toward the cases they go, but wait! They’re sliding this way and that way. They come to halting stops or turn dizzily, and some of them don’t recognize the cases at all and slam into their shiny edges. HAL 9000 these robots are not, but their predicament is looking dire.
It’s as if they’re drunk — and in a way, they are. The robots, all Khepera IIIs, have infra-red sensors that are sensitive to light, and they’re suffering beneath the harsh glare of studio lamps. This isn’t a typical classroom lecture — these robots are starring in a massive open online course, or MOOC.
Egerstedt is teaching in a familiar way, but the setting is different. There are no students present, and instead of a classroom or lecture hall, the lesson is being given in a studio with a jungle of lamps overhead. Every move Egerstedt makes is recorded for online broadcast, and his robots are not taking kindly to the extra light. Frustrated, Egerstedt calls out to Brian Wilson, the instructional media producer who is filming the lesson.
“Brian, can we do it again?” he asks.
“I’m just going to keep rolling,” Wilson replies.
“Yeah,” Egerstedt says. “Till it works.”
And it does work eventually, and when it does, the effect is sublime. Egerstedt turns triumphantly to his student assistant, Jean-Pierre de la Croix.
“Yeah!” he exclaims. “Robotics is so easy, man.”
A MOOC is a special type of online class. Available to anyone with an Internet connection, most MOOCs offer college-level material via pre-taped lectures, and course enrollments can swell to tens of thousands of students. The premise is simple: Bring higher education to the masses by cutting through academia’s red tape and, most tantalizingly, offering many courses (including Egerstedt’s) at the low, low cost of free.