Feature Story

Rise of Robotics

Freshmen Ethan Matlack and Nick Lubeck are no strangers to the world of competitive robotics.

In high school, they competed against each other in the VEX Robotics program. Both earned international recognition.

Today, the once opponents are classmates, part of the inaugural class of Widener’s robotics engineering program. And they have brought competitive robotics to the university.

The pair founded the Widener Robotics Club, which recently made its debut at a VEXU contest in Indiana, facing other collegiate teams. The club fielded two robots that members designed, built, and programmed.

Though Widener didn’t win – they placed 9th out of 16 teams – participants connected with students from around the country, and the experience has energized the club to field more types of competitive teams in the future.

“With the club, we can compete and learn at the same time,” said Lubeck. “We’re learning skills, how to apply them, and how to communicate with both judges and teammates.”

The club is just one way that robotics students – from the outset – are applying their classroom knowledge, developing leadership skills, and building connections to accelerate their careers in this cutting-edge and fast-growing field.

Now in its first full year, Widener’s robotics engineering program is the first undergraduate degree of its kind in the region. Most institutions incorporate robotics into mechanical and electrical engineering programs. But at Widener, it’s a distinct major bringing together these fields with computer science.

Robotics intrigued me because it’s a medley of careers. This is a new and fast-growing degree in the world, and at Widener, we’re already a step ahead. — Ethan Matlack '22

Hands-on courses tackle artificial intelligence, signal analysis, machine design, and more. The arsenal of laboratory tools includes robotic arms equipped with artificial intelligence, and two humanoid robots – the 2-foot-tall bipedal robot named WUbot; and a 5-foot-10-inch-tall industrial robot. Both are used for teaching, training, research, and demonstrations.

Widener is also cultivating connections with companies that use robotics in their operations, from pharmaceutical powerhouse Merck, to cosmetic giant Estee Lauder. These types of connections are opening the door for students to conduct internships and co-ops.

“Robotics is an application-oriented field,” said associate professor and program coordinator Xiaomu Song. “We’re preparing students for new jobs we could have never imagined before.”

And the students in the inaugural class are helping to inform the direction of the program.

“This group of students is dedicated and involved, and they’re treated as professionals from the beginning, not just as students,” said Song. “We value their opinions. I doubt they’d get that same level of recognition and support at other institutions.”

With their extensive knowledge and connections within the VEX community, Lubeck and Matlack played an instrumental role in planning and running Widener’s first VEX competition for elementary through high school students. The event drew 96 teams, with corporate sponsorship from Merck, Monroe Energy, and Health Mats.

“Last year we were competing at this type of event; now we’re on the team running it,” said Lubeck. “And we’re making industry connections.” 

Dr. Sachin Patil, interim engineering dean, said this signature event “helped us to connect Widener’s inaugural robotics class with the next generation of engineering students and introduce them to the Widener inside track to a great engineering education.”

Widener robotics students are drawn from diverse backgrounds and experience levels.

Freshman Sara VanDyke didn’t take robotics classes in high school and never competed. But she has always loved building things, gravitating toward computer science, programming, and mathematics. Robotics is proving an ideal outlet for her interests.

At Widener, VanDyke lends her programming expertise to help a local high school build robots to compete in the FIRST Robotics program. She’s learning as much from the high school students as they from her.

“I like to share my knowledge with others,” said VanDyke. “They teach me how to build and I can help them program.”

With robotics becoming integrated into nearly every industry and facet of life, the job possibilities are far-reaching.

Matlack, for instance, hopes to connect his degree with his other interest – emergency response. A volunteer firefighter and member of a hazardous response team, he aspires to develop robotic equipment for first responders.

“A lot of people think about robotics and they think about stereotypical humanoid robots. But in reality, robots are anything with moving mechanical parts, an electronic control system, and software behind it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that classify as robotics. The applications are kind of endless.”

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