ECU professor to study effectiveness of robotics education

An East Carolina University professor has received a nearly $300,000 grant to support robotics education, especially in rural areas.

Dr. Rui Wu, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, said education in robotics is facing three crucial issues: a lack of instructors, many of whom need added training; costly equipment; and students with various backgrounds and experiences who learn differently.

Wu is seeking to solve these issues through a three-year National Science Foundation grant of $279,916. He plans to research the effectiveness of teaching undergraduate robotics courses with a general instructor who has basic computer science knowledge using a student-centered personalized learning framework.

That framework would include a personalized learning platform, virtual labs and course content written by robotics experts.

Wu proposes to develop two one-semester courses using low-cost hardware and high-realism simulators. A student-centered personalized learning platform prototype developed by ECU through a previously funded NSF grant would be used to host course content that would not require an instructor to have robotics expertise while allowing students to learn at their own pace. About 180 students at Lenoir Community College in Kinston and the University of Nevada, Reno, are expected to take the redesigned courses, and Wu will study whether the courses enhance student learning and enable students to believe they are closer to real robotic scientists after the training.

The goal of Wu’s research is to improve education in robotics, especially in rural areas that often have limited resources.

Wu said the number of robotics faculty is not enough to meet the instructional need, especially at the community college level where salaries are generally lower and tenure protections are less than major universities. Either way, robotics education is rapidly changing as new technology emerges.

“It can be very challenging for a regular instructor without robotics expertise to teach these robotics topics,” Wu said. “One way to address this issue could be to reduce the entry barrier for robotics instruction. But this can have a negative impact on the quality of robotics courses. Hiring a capable robotics instructor is challenging. Training a robotics instructor is difficult too. Instructors usually have heavy teaching loads and have limited time to learn new skills and prepare new courses.”

Wu said robots that are required for instruction can cost tens of thousands of dollars, not including maintenance and repair costs.

“This is not affordable for most community colleges and some universities,” Wu said.

Less expensive hardware, such as raspberry pi, simulation and virtual labs could be the solution.

“This is one of the research questions we will answer in this project,” Wu said.

Efficiently teaching students with different backgrounds who learn at different paces can also be a problem in robotics education, Wu said.

“Compared to the traditional ‘instructor-centered’ pedagogy, a ‘student-centered’ pedagogy allows a student to have more freedom and can create a stronger learning environment,” Wu said.

Wu said the research project would look at a personalized learning platform called ISPeL that ECU developed through a previous NSF grant.

“The virtual labs will be integrated with the personalized learning platform,” Wu said. “This will allow students to practice different labs based on their preferences and learning paces. We do believe that hardware is necessary for robotics education. However, with the help of a personalized learning platform and virtual labs, the learning curve can be shorter.”

The research will compare the effectiveness of virtual labs with labs that use hardware, and students will be surveyed about their experiences. Since a robotics expert won’t be in the classroom, a teaching guide with frequently asked questions will be developed for the instructors. Project staff will create supplemental materials, such as online videos, to help students through more difficult assignments.

Wu said at least three graduate students and one doctoral student would be hired to help with the research.

“The students involved in this research can learn advanced robotics knowledge preferred by local robotics companies,” Wu said. “They will also have the chance to talk with people working in local robotics companies before their graduation about future jobs. Students will receive feedback from local robotics companies, such as if they will be hired based on their current skills.”

Wu said the whole goal of the research is to improve robotics instruction despite the challenges it faces.

“One of the major goals of this project is to study if we can effectively teach a robotics course with a general instructor or even just a master’s student with our proposed method,” he said.