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How the University of Washington Prepares Students for Robotics Careers

Date: October 11, 2021

“These problems are not just robot problems, they’re human/robot/environment problems,” said Sarah Elliot, Robotics Engineer at Fetch Robotics.

Eighty-eight percent of businesses worldwide expect to integrate robotic automation into their infrastructure, with sales and investment into robotic systems increasing at a record pace (source). The robotics track of the MS in Technology Innovation (MSTI) program, launched by the University of Washington in autumn 2021, prepares students for careers in the growing field of assistive robotics, logistics robotics, healthcare robotics, perception, autonomy, and mapping and localization. Designed by faculty with input from experts at leading robotics companies, the program provides students with in-demand robotics skills, such as navigation and mobility, robotic manipulation and grasping, human/robot interaction, computer vision, and machine learning. It also gives students the opportunity to work with engineers at partner companies to address a real-world robotics challenge as part of the culminating launch project experience.

Unlike many master-level robotics programs, which focus primarily on robotics engineering, the MSTI program trains students to look holistically at a problem to understand the entire system, and how a robotic solution might be best integrated with existing environments or contexts. Students learn through a problem-based, interdisciplinary curriculum and work to address real-world scenarios. Along the way, they work with leading companies such as Fetch Robotics and Kinova, which provide cutting-edge hardware to help students design and test a solution in a simulation before interacting with real-world objects.

The MSTI is an applied degree. Faculty collaborate with robotics experts at companies including Amazon Robotics, Nvidia Robotics Labs, and Waymo to ensure the robotics track meets industry needs.

Courses teach students how to perform high-fidelity simulations and complete expert-level robotics labs with physical robots. Students learn ROS, Gazebo, and MoveIt!, manipulation & mobile navigation, and systems design. In addition to their technical skills, students gain valuable experience solving problems and collaborating across disciplines. “Not all questions have answers,” said Elliot. “It’s one of the things students really learn. They have to learn to resolve it even if there’s no answer.”

“It is really surprising how hard it is to program a robot that will work in the real environment,” said Yifei Fang, a student in the robotics track. “In those fuzzy, human-involved environments, we need to discard assumptions that are true in simulations but not in real life.” Jenna Guergah, UX Researcher at Fetch Robotics, added, “There’s a difference in academic research and product research in the wild… this program has enabled the users to explore a realistic example of what product research can be like in industry. They’re using all their processes and methodologies that they’ve learned throughout their courses. I’m also seeing them adapt to quick changes and understand opportunities as they come along in a really natural way that you may not see in traditional academic research.” This year’s robotics launch project pairs hardware from Kinova and Fetch Robotics together to focus on human-friendly mobility and manipulation of objects of Fetch Robotics. MSTI curriculum is built to give students the ability to analyze a problem space, understand the true needs for both robots and end-users, and build a working solution to test in the real world. MSTI students don’t simply receive mentorship from engineers, they partner with them to find solutions to open-ended problems.

“The students keep the humans at the center of their problem statement,” Guergah added.

“They were able to identify a pain point that they had. They started out with a succinct problem statement, and the first step in that was primary research, and then they turn those into deliverables. This is exactly how we would approach a similar question in industry. The humans really are at the center, and the learnings they garner along the way are continuously changing the impact of the project. Once you build something, it’s not done, and I think the students really get that.”

Ready to advance your career in technology? Develop the next generation of smart IoT and robotics solutions with the University of Washington’s Technology Innovation Degree. In this intensive 15-month program, students learn how to take an innovative idea from concept to development, and on to launch.

Learn more about the MSTI or sign up to attend one of our upcoming virtual info sessions.