Looking beyond “technology for technology’s sake” | MIT news

Austin Roberson’s favorite class at MIT is 2.S007 (Designing and Manufacturing I-Autonomous Machines), in which students design, build, and program fully autonomous robots to complete tasks on a themed game board.

“The best thing about that class was that everyone had different ideas,” Roberson said. “We all had the same game board and the same instructions, but the robots that came out of people’s minds were very different.”

The game board was Mars themed and featured a shuttle model that could be lifted to score points. Roberson’s robot, nicknamed Tank Evans after a character in Surf’s Up, used a clever strategy to accomplish this task. Roberson realized that instead of turning the gear to raise the entire mechanism, a claw gripper could wrap around the outside of the shuttle and lift it by hand.

“It was an unplanned approach,” says Roberson, but his brilliant strategy won him an end-of-class competition as part of the New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program. “It was a great lesson for me. I get a lot of enjoyment out of building something with my own hands and using my programming and problem-solving skills to make it move.”

Roberson, a senior, is majoring in aerospace engineering and computer science. The winning robot is shown thriving at the intersection of two fields. He cited the Mars Curiosity Rover as the type of project that inspired him; he even keeps a Lego model of Curiosity on his desk.

“You really have to trust the hardware you’ve built, but you’ve got to trust your software just as much,” said Roberson, referring to the challenges of operating a rover over millions of miles. “Will the robot continue to work after it’s in space? Both of these things have to come together in such a perfect way to do the job.”

Outside of formal classes, Roberson pursued many research opportunities at MIT that combined his academic interests. He worked to raise awareness of the satellite situation Space Systems Laboratorytested drones in different environments Aerospace Control Laboratoryand is currently working on 0-shot machine learning for anomaly detection in large datasets Mechatronics Research Laboratory.

While tackling these difficult technical problems, Roberson is actively thinking about the social impact of his work. He is enrolled in the Science, Technology and Society program, which has taught him not only how technological advances have affected societal changes throughout history, but also how to become a smart engineer in his own career.

“It’s really important to learn about the societal impact of the technology you’re working on,” Roberson said, acknowledging that his work in automation and machine learning is necessary to address these questions. “Sometimes we get caught up in technology for technology’s sake. How can we take these same concepts and deliver them to help people in a real, tangible way? How have we come together as a scientific community to truly affect social change, and what can we do in the future to continue to affect social change?”

Roberson is already exploring what these questions mean for him. During college, he was a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), where he served on the executive board for two years. She has helped organize workshops on everything from interview preparation to financial literacy, as well as social events to build community among members.

“The organization’s mission is to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who succeed academically and professionally and make a positive impact on society,” Roberson said. “My goal with NSBE was to provide resources to help everyone get where they want to be, to be a tool to motivate people to be the best they can be, and to provide people with the resources they need and want to improve themselves. professionally.”

In fact, his most memorable experience at MIT was the first conference he attended as a member of NSBE.

“It’s a very rewarding experience to have different people from these different schools come together as a family and talk to each other,” Roberson said. “It’s important to surround yourself with like-minded people who have similar professional goals and share similar experiences and backgrounds as you. It’s definitely my proudest moment of any club at MIT.”

Roberson sees his career as looking to find ways to work on fast-paced, cutting-edge technology that positively moves society forward.

“Whether it’s space exploration or something else, my hope is that I’m making an impact and making a difference in people’s lives,” Roberson said. “I think that learning about space is also learning about us. As you learn more about what’s out there, you can take those lessons to reflect on what’s here.”

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