Math & Robots

This spring quarter McCormick Associate Professor Todd Murphey introduced simple, programmable robots into his Mechanical Engineering 454 class. The class is generally regarded as one of the most difficult and challenging math courses in mechanical engineering.

Professor Murphey, who has taught the course several times before, wanted to bring innovation to the course by both introducing simple programmable robots to implement the optimal control techniques that they were learning and by moving the physical location of the class to The Garage.

The Garage is a new flexible innovation space on campus designed to build entrepreneurial practice in a broad spectrum of ways. The open and contemporary design of the space in The Garage was a perfect location for students to interact and explore with the application of the algorithms being taught in the programming of the simple robots.

Math & Robots

“Innovation in the classroom can be in the syllabus, in the textbook, in the homework sets that students do, and it can also be in the space that they learn in,” says Professor Murphey. The core change that he was looking to accomplish was to directly link the teaching of math to the physical world. “This quarter, I was experimenting with whether or not students would learn the mathematics differently if they had a space where they could actually play with the robots that were using the algorithms they were learning in a practical and playful setting.”

How did the experiment turn out?

Claire Melvin, a student in the spring class, sums up her experience in Professor Murphey’s retooled 454 class nicely, “It’s very cool to see the math in motion.”

“Introducing robots into the class this past quarter was successful because the students all had final projects that worked and they were able to get their robots to do something that they wanted them to do,” says Professor Murphey, who plans to continue exploring the use of robots in the teaching of higher-level math. “I want students to viscerally internalize the relationship between the equations that they write on a piece of paper and what a robot actually does in the world.”