In a far corner of Florida Tech’s Olin Engineering building, is a small lab filled with the future of robotics.
Master’s and doctoral students share the space as they work on projects like model solar systems that update the position of planets in real time, autonomous vehicles and six-axis robotic arms designed to 3D print a myriad of shapes.
Typical grad student research, right? What many don’t realize is that three undergrads also spend time in this robotics lab in a work study program. In an experience that is nearly unheard of at larger universities, these engineering majors not only assist the grad students, but they have their own projects as well.
Aerospace engineering sophomore Jesse Nyffenegger started working in the robotics lab just about as soon as he stepped onto campus. He attributes landing that job to the hands-on experience he got through his First Robotics team in high school. The experience also made him eligible for a $15,000 scholarship available to VEX and FIRST Robotics high school students.
“I had a lot of hands-on experience,” Nyffenegger said. “And when I came to college, I could use that hands-on experience to go to the professors and say ‘Hey, are you doing research? Can I help?’”
Nyffenegger approached the Associate Dean of the College of Engineering, Pierre Larochelle, and wound up in the robotics lab, repairing an autonomous vehicle as a freshman. Now he’s building a walking robot, modeled after a tortoise.
“It’s like a tortoise leg,” Nyfenegger said. “The idea behind it is that you can mimic a very complex 3D motion at the end of this leg by using only two motors. So it simplifies your design and it simplifies the programming you have to do.”
Nyfenegger knows the opportunities he has in the robotics lab not only help him in class, but will translate into job opportunities after graduation.
“Getting to do that research that compliments your in-class education is really important,” Nyffenegger said, “because what companies are looking for in candidates isn’t as much book knowledge but hands-on experience and stuff that shows you know how to learn on the job.”
That hands-on experience started in FIRST Robotics and continues in the Florida Tech engineering program.
“The biggest thing in high school that you can do in FIRST and VEX is get hands-on experience,” Nyfenegger said. “You can take a class all you want, but unless you actually go through the process, you won’t really understand it.”