Artificial Intelligence and Robotics course puts robots, and students, to the test
The stakes have never been higher in the Bryant University Rotunda as the rivals prepare for their exhibition games. Teams work tirelessly to prepare their champions, solving problems on the fly that push them to the edge of their limits, while science and technology professor Brian Blais glides from group to group offering expert advice and last-minute support .
The opponents, polished and ready, come to life as they size up their opponents and the clash begins. Coaches and trainers watch their trainees take on all challengers, making final adjustments along the way to ensure performance and guarantee success.
The robots are ready to win.
In Bryant’s “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics” course, teams of students build functional robots that can compete in board games like Breakout, Connect Four and Tic-tac-toe and consistently defeat human opponents. Along the way, they study key concepts in coding, engineering and AI – lessons they put into practice through hands-on experience.
“This is a very practical project where students can see the results of their work. But there is also an important level of creativity to it,” says Blais. “They develop their own solutions to the problems they encounter and are able to solve those problems in many different ways.”
The power of programming
The students come to class with a range of programming experience, but the robotics project helps them all see their studies and their own potential in a new light. “The first week of class, when we first started talking about the project, I thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to be able to do this,'” says Data Science major David Poretsky ’23. “But as we continued to learn new piece after new piece in class, week after week, it was really just a matter of putting everything we learned together. You realize that this is actually something we can do.'”
“It’s a really fun way to put what we’ve learned to the test.”
In addition to practical knowledge, the coursework also focuses on competing theories of artificial intelligence and decision making as well as ethical issues related to those areas. “You start to realize that the potential is really unlimited,” says Adam Dahill ’23. “When you start with a project like this and can keep expanding on it, you learn that you can really do a lot. I think it’s pretty cool.”
To build their robot champions, the students learn to code strategies and responses; design and create prototypes of LEGO bricks; and wire in sensors and motors, adding engineering elements to the project that help students understand the real-world application of their knowledge. “It’s a really fun way to put what we’ve learned to the test,” says Natalia Kuipers ’23. “And being able to physically see where your code is going wrong adds another level to what you’re learning.”
Throughout the course, students learn to use Python, a high-level programming language. “I have found that being able to program is one of the most transferable and useful skills you can have. It can literally be applied across the board,” says Blais. “A robotics project like this helps students learn those skills in a fun way.”
For Anxhela Elezaj ’23, a Finance major who is currently a portfolio manager for Bryant’s student-run Archway Investment Fund, the course is an opportunity to learn about concepts that are quickly becoming invaluable to every field of endeavor . “Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more important every day,” she notes. “Learning about programming and gaining experience with it as students is going to help us all in the future.”
Space for creativity
No two robots created in the course are identical and the teams are given the freedom to approach the project in their own way. “One of the things that makes it exciting is that we built it ourselves,” notes Gianni Coelho ’23. “You develop a connection with what you’ve built, and you want to make sure it works as well as you can make it work.”
“I think my favorite thing about the course is that you get to use your brain more holistically.”
“We had a lot of fun building the robots, and you even start to feel a little proud of them,” agrees Kuipers. “It was really amazing the first time we saw it done that we said it.”
The design element also allows the students to express themselves in different ways. “I think my favorite thing about the course is that you get to use your brain more holistically,” says Coelho. “You put the mathematical design part and the creative part together and you get the harmony between the two.”
Accept the challenge
Ensuring that the robots can “see” the board, decide on strategy, adapt to their opponent’s choices and physically move games requires students to test a variety of skills, including problem solving and rapid iteration as their designs and knowledge evolve. It also means you can solve problems, both digitally and mechanically, as a single mistake can have huge consequences.
“Every little movement you make, anything you change, is going to have a direct impact on everything you’ve done,” says Coelho. “Sometimes that means one little thing goes wrong and the whole thing breaks, which means you have to rebuild the whole thing.”
“I think we’re really our best selves when we push ourselves and try to solve difficult problems.”
Posing it entirely and testing their work in real time helps students gain a new perspective on its underlying principles. “Finding out how something works related to the code and then being able to fix it helps you understand how it really works,” says Nathan Mulder ’23. “You start realizing what you’re going to get before you actually run a program.”
Learning to deal with complex issues is an important element of the course, says Blais. “I think we’re really our best selves when we’re pushing ourselves and trying to solve difficult problems,” he says. “When the students are finally able to overcome an obstacle, there is a real ‘ah ha’ moment.”
When that moment comes, Ethan Savoie ’23 says, it makes the whole struggle worth it. “The first week of class we did some simple coding, just creating a box with a cursor in it. The first time I was able to do it without help, well, it was the best feeling, and it motivates you to do more.”
“I think what I’m most proud of about this project is going through the whole process: encountering problems, solving them, and moving on to the next one,” reflects Michael Chiang ’23.