Robotics Club gives Mercer students creative outlet and competitive edge

=Colin Petherbridge works in the robotics club lab on Mercer's Macon Campus.
Colin Petherbridge works in the robotics club lab on Mercer's Macon Campus.

There’s more to Mercer’s Robotics Club than programming and robots. The organization is an outlet for students to learn, teach, create and socialize, and some incredible projects have emerged from it.

Dr. Anthony Choi, professor of electrical and computer engineering, started the club a decade ago as a way to help students understand the practical side of engineering. He wanted to create a social component of his Machine Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory and open up research opportunities for all students, regardless of whether they were working on projects with him. 

“I had an idea of creating a space and creating a mechanism for students to be involved in  more prototyping and hands-on research. In engineering, there’s a lot of coursework and application, but being able to apply what you’ve learned into something real is very different,” he said. “It has been an amazing experience learning and also expanding and improving.”

The club currently has about 160 members, with students involved at varying levels, from conducting independent research to participating in group projects to attending club workshops. 

The club lab space in Science and Engineering Building Room 232 is generally open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. during the week, though club activities have taken a pause while Mercer’s courses have transitioned to virtual formats. Students are welcome to come and go as they wish, said club president Jacob Sokolove, a senior mechanical engineering major. The club also uses an auxiliary space in the Engineering Building for larger projects.

Brandon Matthews works on his 3D printer inside the robotics club lab at Mercer.
TOP PHOTO: Colin Petherbridge works in the robotics club lab on Mercer’s Macon Campus. ABOVE: Brandon Matthews works on his 3D printer inside the robotics club lab.

“We don’t have any type of membership dues or fees,” said Brandon Matthews, who plans to finish his master’s degree in electrical engineering this year and is the club’s workshop coordinator. “We have this space and these tools. We try to create this chill atmosphere where people can come and have access to things that they normally wouldn’t have access to.”

The lab houses equipment such as a 3D printer; laser cutter; computer numerical control milling machine; test equipment such as spectrum analyzer, logic analyzer and digital oscilloscope; solder rework stations; computer-aided design workstations; and a stock of electronics such as sensors, microcontrollers and single board computers, Dr. Choi said. 

The lab is actually open to all of Mercer, engineering and non-engineering students, faculty and staff. Robotics club members take the most advantage of it, but some faculty members have come in to use the space for projects.

Students are trained and mentored on the lab equipment by their peers, Dr. Choi said. Every couple weeks during the semester, club officers try to host workshops to teach various skills that engineering classes may not cover, such as 3D printing, 3D modeling, laser engraving, soldering, embedded systems, software and programming languages, Sokolove said. 

Students can access the room after hours and use the devices on their own once they have received certification through club-sponsored workshops, Dr. Choi said. 

“We have this open lab space and all these tools, but a lot of people don’t know how to use them. Our workshops are to catch people up,” Matthews said.

The club sponsors student research projects, and members submit proposals and go through an approval process to receive funding, which gives them real-world experience pitching ideas they are passionate about, Dr. Choi said. 

Sokolove came to Mercer with knowledge of 3D printers, having built and designed one as a high school senior. He said his interest in the Robotics Club was piqued when he walked by the lab door and saw a 3D printer and students working on a variety of projects. He was excited to have access to a 3D printer once again and surprised to learn that he could receive funding through the club to build his own. 

“We offer a lot of free materials that they can do prototyping with,” Dr. Choi said. “Students can come in without being financially burdened and be able to test something out. That really allows a lot of students to come in and take advantage of the lab.” 

An object is printed on a 3D printer inside the robotics club lab.
An object is printed on a 3D printer inside the robotics club lab.

Some of the club’s larger projects include drones, rovers, a hydroponic system where plants are grown in water, and a high-altitude research project sponsored by NASA where weather balloons are used to collect data. A few years ago, three freshman students designed a keyless locking mechanism that allows specific students access to a room within the lab, Dr. Choi said.

“There is a lot of freedom to explore whatever the students want,” Matthews said.

Sokolove initiated the club’s recent efforts to develop three products to help healthcare providers as they face supply shortages. They are currently working on 3D-printed or vacuum-formed face masks; face shields made through 3D-printing and laser-cutting technology; and ventilator splitters that would allow medical facilities to handle more patients needing ventilators, Dr. Choi said.

Sophomore Colin Petherbridge, a computer and electrical engineering double-major, said he has built several things on his own and with a group since he joined the club his freshman year. He built a spot welder last year and has been working on an electric skateboard this year.  

“The main purpose of it is to be an open maker space,” Petherbridge said. “The club has been a great way to learn engineering, a supplement for the classes themselves. It’s a nice outlet to be able to apply the knowledge you are gaining in your classes.” 

The club also hosts regular “hackathons” to foster friendly competition among members and encourage them to work together. Each participating team submits a proposal for an idea, receives a budget, and has a weekend to complete the project before it’s judged. Members also do a lot of fundraisers, their biggest to date being creating laser-cut products for a local business, Sokolove said. 

“We’re trying to build a strong foundation,” Sokolve said. “We want students helping students and to really get them to know that they can rely on each other.”

Petherbridge said his favorite part of the club is the community that comes with it. When members aren’t doing projects in the lab, they’re studying, helping each other with homework and hanging out there. Many stop by in the morning to relax and catch up, and they often eat lunch together. Petherbridge said he met most of his close friends at Mercer through the organization. 

Being in the robotics club gives students a competitive edge because of the hands-on experience it provides, Matthews said. It encourages them to pursue higher-level research, makes them stand out and gives them an advantage when they move on to bigger lab projects at Mercer or elsewhere, Dr. Choi said.

“The experiences lead them to be better prepared for their next step wherever they’re headed,” he said.

Dr. Anthony Choi works with students in the robotics club lab.
Dr. Anthony Choi works with students in the robotics club lab.