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Robots are cool: interview with Dr Michelle Dunn

Created on Thu, 09/01/2014 - 16:21 by Jennifer Piper 

Whether it’s Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, or R2-D2 from Star Wars, most of us have a favourite robot from film, television or even history.

Robot boy loves this free course about mobile robotics

Image via Flickr

In our new Mobile Robotics course, Swinburne University’s Dr Michelle Dunn takes us through the steps to build a robot. We spoke to her recently, and started off by finding out a bit about her history with our mechatronic friends.

How did you first become interested in robotics?

I studied Mechanical Engineering at UNSW. I was on a Co-op scholarship, which means that you’re sponsored to go to university, but you work in all the breaks, and you also take a year off between third and fourth year to work.

On my very first break I was sent to work for an automotive company. I was supposed to be there as a mechanical engineer but they placed me with the mechatronics group. They had the best time at work, and it was so interesting. I was struck by just how much fun it was. I realized then that I had probably made a mistake, choosing mechanical engineering; because for me it’s all about seeing things move. I’m not interested in static objects. Even with pure mechanical objects, I want to see them move and see how they work. Mechatronics – or robotics – just sort of made sense.

Michelle Dunn with a robot friend

What made you decide to teach this free online course?

It was really strange, I only really became aware of MOOCS about six months before I did the course. I did a couple of courses with another provider, and really enjoyed them. I’ve got a friend who’s a learning designer, and he asked me if I thought I would ever teach a MOOC. I just thought it was something I would need a whole lot more practice in and said something like, ‘Oh, in five years’ time, maybe.’

I thought I needed more experience. But then this opportunity came along, and my Dean really encouraged me to do it, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It really didn’t take much convincing. It was just a great opportunity.

What was the scariest thing coming into the course?

Apart from the thought of having to be on camera?

Not really knowing exactly what I was doing. I think the way that Open2Study structures the course, so that it’s six minute videos, is brilliant. It makes a lot of sense for this sort of course. I’ve seen the research, people lose concentration if you try to hold them for too long. The courses are short and snappy and people just respond to them.

But approaching the course, I was thinking, ‘How can I possibly explain this concept in just six minutes?’ I really had to think about it and cut it down to its bare basics.

For example, I wanted to explain how robots don’t fall over, and I really had to break it down to its constituent parts. How do you explain center of gravity without too many equations? It’s actually a good lesson, because you go right back to the beginning and build it up.

The roboto toy has a lot to learn
Image via Flickr

Why do you think it’s important to have an understanding of robotics?

Because I think there’s a bit of mystery around robots. People just think, ‘Oh I’ll get a robot to do that,’ or they pick up a phone or calculator without thinking. It just works and I think it’s good to know what’s going on inside.

One of the biggest things about robots is everyone thinks they’re really intelligent or that they’re sentient beings; that they’re running around plotting against us. They really aren’t. They’re just following instructions. Sometimes it’s a pretty complex set of instructions, but it’s still just a set of instructions.

Robot Joe wants to learn more about robots with a free course
Image via Flickr

How is robotics applicable in day-to-day life?

There’s the obvious things, like robotic vacuum cleaners or toys.

Robotics is sort of like mechatronic systems that do specific tasks and mechatronic systems are everywhere. They apply the brakes in your car, they are in the control systems for traffic lights. Everywhere there’s something that is controlled within a system, it’s a mechatronic system.

Transformers Bumblebee robot loves learning for free
Image via Flickr

Who should enrol in this course?

Anyone who thinks robots are cool, and to be honest I think that’s everyone. Whenever I say to anyone, I work in robots they’ll say, ‘Oh that’s cool.’ Which is often closely followed by, ‘Oh, that’s strange for a girl.’

There aren’t as many women in robotics as there could be. When I went through, it was about fifteen percent and in the last class I took it was about two out of fifty. I’m sure there are classes where it’s higher and I can see there’s a lot of outreach going on to girls to do engineering in general.

Reaching out to teach you about robots and robotics

I didn’t do this course to try to get women interested in robotics or mechatronics, but there are some people doing really amazing things, like Marita Cheng, who started Robogals. That program is about going out to schools and showing girls how robotics is really fun and cool. I wish I’d had that opportunity.

I remember this guy I knew when I was a kid, who got a Dick Smith kit and built a really annoying siren thing. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘I could do that,’ but I didn’t think I was supposed to. If you can get a bunch of girls and tell them, ‘Hey, look, you can build these things and it’s cool and it’s fun, then you’ve got them hooked.’

Like I said, this course isn’t particularly targeted to girls, but maybe some girls will see it and be inspired.

Are there any simple experiments with robotics that people can do safely in their own homes?

I’ve always maintained that it’s best to back up study by building an actual robot. There are some really great kits on the market now, where you can have a go and build a robot for yourself. I think that’s the best thing ever.

In the course, I try to incorporate that a bit, so we discuss the theory and I always follow up with demonstration. At the end, I build a robot using the theory that we’ve used along the way.

Free mobile robotics course from little robot thingie

What’s the most exciting thing students will learn in this course?

I think it’s all exciting. Robots are cool.

Dr Michelle Dunn lectures in Robotics and Mechatronics, as well as Biomedical Engineering, at Swinburne University of Technology. She presents Mobile Robotics for Open2Study.

All images within this post are taken from Open2Study's Mobile Robotics course, unless otherwise stated.


Dear Michelle

Thank you so much for deciding to do this course. I am a Year 9/10 IST teacher teaching robotics for the first time in an all girls school. I have always avoided this option topic; however, one of my Yr 9 girls asked me last year if we could do it. Thank you for your passion and inspiration.

It's great to hear that you are introducing an all-girls class to robotics. If for no other reason than they're cool. Nice work.

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