21st Century Slugs

NEWS2A look at UCSC’s new robotics major and how it came to be
The past several years have been full of bad budget news for UC Santa Cruz. Thanks to a Golden State that isn’t so golden these days, the school has had to make more than $50 million in permanent budget reductions since the 2008-2009 fiscal year, resulting in the elimination of 300 staff and 110 teaching assistant positions, a 16 percent reduction in faculty positions, and a 15 percent decrease in academic funding. UCSC officials are currently grappling with $19 million in cuts as part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2011 budget, which included $500 in cuts to the UCs (even worse news: this amount could deepen later this year depending on how the state’s budget pans out).


But, in the midst of yet another round of brutal budget cuts, the UCSC community has a piece of good news to celebrate: the creation of a new robotics major, a cutting edge degree that is the first of its kind in California and one of only a few across the country. But how does a department birth an altogether new major during fiscally challenged times—times that are so cash-deprived that two majors, community and American studies, became so under-funded over time that they were suspended indefinitely? “Very, very carefully,” according to Richard Hughey, professor of computer engineering, who spoke to GT from his office at NASA Ames, where he co-leads a joint UCSC/NASA advanced studies laboratory.

Hughey envisioned and fought for a robotics major while serving as chair of the Computer Engineering Department, a position he has since stepped down from. The robotics major was officially announced earlier this month, and will be open to students beginning fall 2011.

“What made the financial case for it is that it is not really going out on a limb, and also that we have existing resources for this,” Hughey says, explaining that the new major relies on existing faculty and courses, with the exception of one new class (the department’s only added expense at the hand of the major).

“The big investment,” he says, “was getting the great faculty.” The robotics faculty dream team was assembled gradually over the last decade, beginning in 2003 with Gabriel Elkhaim, associate professor of computer engineering, who “brought with him the idea of starting a robotics major.” Then came William Dunbar, also an associate professor of computer engineering, in 2004, and, finally, Associate Professor Jacob Rosen in 2008. “He really cemented the group,” recalls Hughey.

With this team and their individual projects on board, UCSC had the research side of robotics already in place. Also in place was a significant student interest—according to Hughey, one-third of current computer engineering undergraduates are doing robotics. In response, the department started by forming a robotics minor for graduate students before eventually forming the undergraduate major.

Although computer engineering will manage it, the major will include classes from other departments, including applied math and statistics and electrical engineering. “Robotics is a very interdisciplinary field,” says Rosen. “It’s crossing the boundaries between different departments.” This breadth also speaks to the growing number of fields where robots are now found (medicine, industry, space, etc.) and the vast number of potential careers for graduates with a robotics degree. Students will take a set of required courses and then choose a concentration to pursue.

Rosen’s own focus is biomedical engineering, and he is currently engrossed in developing an exoskeleton robot prototype that helps stroke survivors regain use of their arms. His research team is also building advanced surgical robots to distribute to schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, which use them for research. With Rosen and the other robotics faculty nabbing national attention for their work, it’s possible that the forthcoming students could follow suit. As some of the first students in the nation to have access to a robotics degree, only time will tell what it will mean for them and for UCSC.

“We are building this reputation [for robotics], and hopefully we’ll be successful,” says Rosen. “We’ll be judged by the quality of our students.”

Hughey hopes that the robotics major will be the seed for what would grow to be a mechanical engineering department—something he has been dreaming of for years, but that has been continuously postponed due to budgetary hardship.

“I still have hopes that over the long run this will become a mechanical engineering program, but that’s getting more distant every year because of budget issues,” Hughey says. “At one point there were plans to be adding more robotics faculty to the department, but the faculty we have is enough to make a really great undergraduate major.”

As chair of the computer engineering department, Hughey worked to broaden the school’s engineering offerings in more ways than just pushing for robotics. It was under his supervision that the school welcomed bioengineering on board at about the same time that UCSC became the first school in the UC system to offer a Computer Game Design Major. Those two new majors have attracted a fresh influx of bright young minds, and Hughey expects robotics to do the same.

“Someone from Worcester Polytechnic Institute”—one of the only other U.S. universities with a robotics major—“called to congratulate me the other day,” says Hughey. “He said to be prepared for a flood of students.”

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