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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Modular robot receives NSF grant

Barobo, Inc., a robotics company founded by UC Davis mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Harry Cheng and his former graduate student, Graham Ryland, has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) small business innovation research program for their small, versatile modular robot.
Cheng and Ryland will be using the grant money to further develop their modular robot, “Mobot,” over the next two years.
“With the funding from NSF, we will develop Mobot as a programmable universal building block for education, research and industrial applications,” Cheng said.
A Mobot is a fully functional robot with four degrees of freedom, including the ability to move forward, roll around and bend forward. It uses two wheels at either end to move and can be modified using two hinges in the center of the module.
“It can roll, crawl, stand, tumble, etc.,” Cheng said. “In addition, like Lego, Mobot can also be used as a building block to create a snake, tank, truck, humanoid and any systems you can imagine.”
Cheng hopes to use the Mobot to teach young students robotics as early as kindergarten.
“Each building block is fully programmable, which makes the combined system extremely flexible and versatile,” Cheng said. “Programming a single Mobot and multiple Mobots can be easily accomplished by K-12 students.”
Cheng and Ryland have been working with 15 local schools in Davis and Sacramento to use Mobot in classes, demonstrating to students how to build the robots using computers.
“It’s really exciting to be part of something that inspires middle school and high school students to get into robotics through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects,” Ryland said.
STEM is the acronym established by Cheng through his UC Davis K-14 Outreach Center for Computing and STEM Education.

“The goal of the C-STEM Center is to broaden participation of students typically underrepresented in computing and to develop students’ computer-aided problem-solving skills to tackle real-world STEM problems,” Cheng said. “Through various outreach activities, the C-STEM Center seeks to inspire students to pursue computing and STEM-related careers and post-secondary study.”

But why robotics specifically? Cheng points to the future of science and technology for his answer.
“Robotics is an interdisciplinary field. Robotics is a next frontier for innovation and technology integration,” said Cheng. “Robotics will be more integrated into our work and daily life in the future.”
According to Brian Donnelly, STEM program coordinator and industrial technology teacher at Harper Junior High School in Davis, robotics is also a viable means for students to understand math in a real-world context.
“This is a great way to engage kids in math — especially those students who struggle to see how math relates to the real world,” said Donnelly. “When we talk about giving kids ’21st century skills’ and ‘closing the achievement gap,’ the C-STEM curricula can really make a difference for students and teachers.”
The C-STEM Center will be hosting the UC Davis C-STEM Day on Saturday at the UC Davis Conference Center. Local middle and high school students will showcase their skills in computing and robotics, while educators and researchers will discuss the importance and application of these skills. This year’s theme is “Integrating Technology and Engineering into Math and Science Education in the 21st Century.”
RACHEL KUBICA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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