Mechatronics Robotics Course
Special Training Helps Overseas Engineers

Article Access Magazine, Fall 2009 Issue
Students working together on a Boe-Bot® project

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 CCE 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 for 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 multiple 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.

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® is a big hit with students. It's used in class to solve complex problems similar to those that confront engineers in robot control systems and factory automation.

Close-up of the Boe-Bot®

“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 he input, and then manipulate motors and actuators to solve the same kind of problems that confront engineers in robotics, control systems and factory automation.”

CCE was surprised by the popularity of the Parallax Boe-Bot® robots.  “The students all wanted to purchase these robots and take them home. They’d never seen anything like them,” says former CCE Dean Alice Tom. 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.”

Engineering Better Intercultural Communications

The partnership with Wilhelm Büchner was facilitated by Ulrich Luenemann, a part-time Sacramento State communication studies professor and German national. “They 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 developed the mechatronics curriculum and teach each session. Another 25 hours of intercultural communication instruction is added to meet the program’s three primary objectives: international communications, cultural studies and mechatronics. ESL instruction is threaded throughout the course to increase language aptitude.

The Parallax Connection

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

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.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Access Magazine. It has been edited for length and clarity. Article written by Lynn Machon.