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CCE robotics course
Mechatronics draws alums, campus, international students

By Lynn Machon

Few Sacramento State alumni could likely imagine their career destiny would unfold as neatly as it has for both Andy Lindsay and Jeff Martin. Upon graduation, each landed choice jobs in their chosen fields and at the forefront of technological advancements with a company they call their dream employer.

Today, industry professionals Lindsay—a ’99 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering—and Martin—a ’95 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science— are both with Rocklin-based Parallax Inc. They are involved in the Mechatronics Short Course, an innovative international program offered through the College of Continuing Education (CCE) at Sacramento State in cooperation with the College of Engineering and Computer Science. For these alumni, it’s been an invigorating way to share their cutting-edge industry knowledge while giving back to the school they credit with launching their lifelong careers.

A unique international collaboration
The Mechatronics Short Course is a three-week program offered by CCE’s international programs department to overseas professionals who simultaneously want to learn about American culture and the engineering field. Mechatronics is an emerging term used to describe the robotics area of technology that integrates mechanical engineering with electronic systems. Real world applications of mechatronic systems are readily found in everything from microwave ovens to space shuttles.

Since launching the intensive program in October 2007, CCE has hosted four groups of approximately 20 students each from Wilhelm Büchner Hochschule (WBH), a private German university focused on engineering and computer science, located in Darmstadt, Germany. The most recent group of students concluded their studies at Sacramento State in May.

Without a doubt, the star of the mechatronics course is the Parallax Boe-Bot®, a small two-wheeled robot, utilized for hands-on programming practice. “The Boe-Bot® robot used in class has to solve complex problems such as maze navigation, finding and extinguishing a flame in a room, and getting a ball and launching it through a miniature basketball hoop,” explains Lindsay, an applications engineer. “These tasks all use microcontroller brains that monitor sensors, process the input, and then manipulate motors and actuators to solve the same kind of problems that confront engineers in robotics, control systems and factory automation.”

One of the highlights for each group is a private tour of the Parallax facility in Rocklin, Calif., complete with a one-hour seminar on robotics and microcontrollers taught by Lindsay. During the first year of the program, CCE staff was surprised by the popularity of the Parallax Boe-Bot® robots, says CCE Dean Alice Tom. “The students all wanted to purchase these robots and take them home. They’d never seen anything like them.” As a result of the teaching value and student interests, Boe-Bots® are now included for every student taking the course. “We realized it was a unique instructional tool that the students could continue to use after they returned home,” explains Tom.

Engineering better intercultural communications
According to Tom, the partnership with Wilhelm Büchner was facilitated by Ulrich Luenemann, a part-time Sacramento State communication studies professor and German national. “They (WBH) were interested in an engineering program and wanted to establish a relationship with a California university with a curriculum complementary to theirs,” says Tom. “As part of CCE’s commitment to internationalize our curriculum, we explored project possibilities with them. WBH has now joined many other international universities working with CCE.”

Tom describes the students as mid-career working professionals—many are engineers or computer scientists. “They average in age from the late 20s to 40s and are attending specialized training. CCE is the primary host for these students during their studies. Students reside on campus and have the opportunity to connect with other American and international students. They have the opportunity to fully experience and explore American culture from grocery shopping to attending local social events. “For many this is their first formal exposure to America, and in particular to California,” says Tom.

Sacramento State mechanical engineering professors Dr. Kenneth Sprott and Dr. José Granda developed the mechatronics curriculum and teach a combined 35 hours of mechatronics for each session. Luenemann provides another 25 hours of intercultural communication instruction to meet the program’s three primary objectives—international communications, cultural studies and mechatronics. English as a second language instruction is threaded throughout the course to increase language aptitude.

“The mechatronics program has created important international opportunities for our faculty and students,” says Emir Macari, dean of the College of Engineering & Computer Science at Sacramento State. “Our German partners are very happy with the level of education they have received as well as the wonderful experience they have been exposed to during their tenure in Sacramento. We look forward to our continued collaboration with the College of Continuing Education as we expand this program into a full joint master’s program in mechatronics with Wilhelm Büchner university.”

The Parallax connection
Founded in 1987 by entrepreneur Chip Gracey, Parallax Inc. designs and manufactures microcontroller development tools and small, singleboard computers. Product lines include sensors, robots, and educational kits and textbooks distributed on a worldwide basis and available at large commercial electronics outlets.

Lindsay’s co-workers include fellow alum Jeff Martin, a senior software engineer who has been with the company for 13 years. Both Lindsay and Martin claim working at Parallax has been a dream job that seemed predestined.

After studying computer design at Sacramento State, Martin was a regular customer of the company following graduation and accepted a job in 1996. For Lindsay, it seemed a similar career destiny. “In spring 1999, I was purchasing a BASIC Stamp microcontroller for my senior project,” he remembers. “As Jeff was explaining the product to me, he mentioned they were looking for an intern. I applied and soon after they hired me.” Lindsay has now been with the company for 10 years.

Lindsay’s wife Stephanie, also a Sac State graduate, is a technical editor at Parallax. She now plays a key role in the company’s education department, including preparing materials and presentations for the German short course students.

Interacting with international students has been a unique experience that complements the company’s mission. As Martin points out, “We have customers around the world, so working with students of other countries is just a natural extension of that.” Lindsay adds, “The German students are so alert and interested in everything—and they ask great questions.” Hearing a German student exclaim in English, “This is SO cool!“ was a favorite moment. “It is always so rewarding when I know we’ve inspired someone,” laughs Lindsay.

Ensuring an intercultural education
The abbreviated schedule of the Mechatronics Short Course leaves the international students with little free time. Consequently, as a way to help cultivate the intercultural aspect of the program, CCE staff develops an activity calendar with local points of interest and community events such as the Second Saturday art walk in downtown Sacramento. Each session also includes a day trip to San Francisco and a tour of the state Capitol, where Austrian-born Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is possibly more popular with the German students than the Boe-Bots®.

Tom sees these international programs as fully illustrating CCE’s goal to serve as a lifelong learning model. “Statistics suggest today’s graduates will have 5-10 career changes in their lifetimes,” she explains. “Change in technology is driving people to become more proficient as quickly as possible. Language acquisition and the ability to communicate with different cultural groups are increasingly important. These are exactly the types of programs we offer through CCE.”