The task sounded complicated but was rather straightforward, particularly for a mechanical engineering student like Jonathan Aston.
A prototype robot that enabled special-needs kids in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to retrieve toys from a sandbox was popular but too heavy and complex.
Aston, a junior at the University of Tulsa, and another engineering student were asked last summer to develop plans for a smaller, lighter, safer one.
“It’s designed,” he said Thursday, noting that the team trimmed the overall weight by switching to aluminum and relying on the weight of the large, rechargeable battery in the robotic device’s base to boost its stability. “Some of the modules are built and we want to finish the project this summer.”
Aston is among the more than 3,000 college students and faculty in Cheney and Spokane this week for the nation’s largest conference devoted to promoting undergraduate research. Hosted this year by Eastern Washington University, it’s the annual signature event for the National Council on Undergraduate Research.
Thousands of research projects – ranging from the hard sciences to the visual and performing arts – are being presented through Saturday by students from 369 universities hoping to improve their graduate school chances or boost their resumes. Organizers say visitors are welcome.
Eastern, with help from Spokane tourism boosters, made the pitch two years ago to host the conference.
It was a natural fit, said EWU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Rex Fuller.
“Eastern has a long, long tradition of undergraduate research,” Fuller said. “It’s common for sciences but we do it for other disciplines. Students in every major are required to have a capstone experience … and it often includes research projects.”
That emphasis is among the reasons Eastern’s contingent eventually became one of the largest at the research council’s annual conferences, which draw undergrads from Ivy League and public schools alike. This year, students from 11 countries, including the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, are participating as well.
Conference organizer Chris Robbins said exposure to research, even at the undergraduate level, can enhance the overall college experience.
“It has a real impact,” said Robbins, a program manager at EWU. “You see students getting involved, staying in school and doing better in school.”
Back in Tulsa, for example, the playground robot has become more than just a research project for Aston, who was peppered with design questions from other students following his presentation Thursday.
The goal of the project was to design a mounted robotic arm that was safe and easy to operate, light enough to be maneuvered around a playground and built from easily accessible materials. The project required Aston and fellow student Austin Vancuren to learn more about special-needs kids and how they used the robot to interact with the playground sandbox.
“Children seem to have a lot of fun with it,” he said of the initial prototype.
But one of the unexpected lessons? Buying metal.
“If you’ve ever bought metal, you don’t just call up and tell them here’s how much metal I need,” he said. “You have to buy it in … these certain lengths.”
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