‘It’s a really cool place’: U of T Mississauga students get hands-on experience in new robotics teaching lab

Students and visitors get a hands-on demonstration during the official opening of U of T Mississauga's Undergraduate Robotics Teaching Laboratory (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Laura Maldonado beams as she describes her first day learning in U of T Mississauga’s Undergraduate Robotics Teaching Laboratory.

“It’s a really cool place,” she says, as she takes out her phone to show a video of one of the lab’s robots in action. “We actually play with these robots and get hands-on experience.”

The computer science specialist student was among the first group of undergraduates in the third-year Fundamentals of Robotics class to use the new lab, which officially opened its doors on Sept. 7.

Jessica Burgner-Kahrs, an associate professor in the department of mathematical and computational sciences who spearheaded the lab's creation, said the lab will be used primarily for computer science students who take robotics courses in their third and fourth years.

However, the lab will also be available to the broader U of T community – including graduate students in computer science, mechanical engineering and aerospace studies, says Burgner-Kahrs, who is cross-appointed to the department of computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the department mechanical and industrial engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering; and is founding director of the Continuum Robotics Laboratory.

She adds that it will also be a resource for the U of T Robotics Institute, where she is an associate director.

“I’m very thankful and very grateful that we now have this teaching lab for students, and you can tell by the students’ faces how happy they are,” she says. “I think it’s, by far, the most up-to-date teaching lab I’ve seen anywhere in Canada.”

Burgner-Kahrs, who teaches Maldonado’s "Fundamentals of Robotics" class, says the lab includes revolutionary types of robots called “cobots,” or “collaborative robots,” that have multiple movable joints and safety sensors so they can safely interact with humans. She says these kinds of robots have become more prevalent in recent years.

“They are more used for co-operative tasks, where humans and robots work alongside (each other),” explains Burgner-Kahrs, adding that they can be used to automate some tasks or perform more delicate tasks. “Robotics engineering is one of the fastest growing job markets, and all these new jobs will entail being familiar with these collaborative robots. It will put our students at an advantage in the job market.”

Sven Lilge, PhD student and teaching assistant for the robotics fundamentals course, says the lab offers a rare opportunity for undergraduate students to learn how robots work through practical experience. “What’s really unique is we have the ability for all of our students in our class, which is more than 60 students, to work hands-on with a robot,” he says. “It’s really a game-changer.”

Maldonado says the lab is also helping her apply learning from previous math courses – a subject that she admits isn’t her strongest.

“I used to think, ‘Why are we learning linear algebra? Why are we learning calculus? What’s the point of this?’” she says. “Now, I understand that I need to know how the robot moves. I need to understand three dimensions. I can physically see it with the robot.”

Maldonado adds that she feels lucky to be able to use a robotics lab during her undergraduate degree.

“The only way (students before me) really got to work on robotic stuff was if they maybe got research positions, or maybe they tried getting some internships – which was hard if you didn’t have physical experience,” she says. “Now, we get this hands-on experience. I think it’s a privilege.”