First-year engineering students showcase cutting-edge robotics projects on Northeastern’s Oakland campus

Students working with robots at a table.
First-year engineering students on Northeastern’s Oakland campus work on self-driving robots. Photos by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif. — At the start of the Cornerstone of Engineering showcase at Northeastern University’s Oakland campus, Kyle Tivnan’s robot was stalling.

He and his teammate, both Global Scholars in their first semester at Northeastern, had spent more than 100 hours building and rebuilding their robot, Frank the Tank, a small, motorized box on wheels programmed to traverse a series of cardboard mazes.

Following the guidance of assistant teaching professor Nicole Batrouny, students programmed their robots to evaluate the upcoming path and turn left or right depending on obstacles ahead. Batrouny, known as “Dr. B” by students, designed the showcase to bring together two months of robotics development for her students. 

Working in pairs, the teams put their hand-built robots to the test, employing two programming languages, one graphics software and hours of design practice. The robots were challenged to drive straight, navigate a predetermined maze, then follow three mystery mazes.

In the first challenge, Tivnan and his partner had a functioning robot. By the third challenge, the robot malfunctioned. The team rebuilt Frank the Tank multiple times, Tivnan said, adding another sensor to its side and changing the logic behind their code.

In the last stretch of class, something clicked. Frank the Tank sprung to life and completed the course, all on its own.

“It felt great,” Tivnan said. “My partner and I had spent a lot of time in the last two weeks really diving in on it and doing a lot of error analysis. It was really good to see it pay off in the end.”

The Cornerstone of Engineering program on the Oakland campus follows Northeastern’s first-year engineering curriculum, but the showcase last week was Batrouny’s idea.

“I wanted it to be a carnival atmosphere,” she said. “Tomorrow we’ll do a little bit more reflecting, but yesterday it was just the chaos. That’s the fun of it, and there was a lot of celebrating yesterday as well.”

Was there a winner? No, Batrouny said, just progress.

Watching the 24 teams complete the challenges left her with a sense of pride as an educator.

“I was so proud and excited, and also running around like a chicken trying to witness a lot of the mazes, which I was really glad to see,” she said. “I got to see a lot of joy, and I hadn’t fully appreciated the range of approaches until I could see them all at once. The robots are all the same parts, but there’s still at least 24 different ways to solve the same problem.”

The showcase went smoothly, with no major hiccups. Students in class lauded the program for its real-world approach, something they didn’t expect in their first semester at Northeastern. 

Even Batrouny said she didn’t get to this level of engineering until she was a junior in college.

“The real-world experience and being able to give so many different materials to students as well was different,” said Jason Zamarripa, sitting at a desk and taking apart his robot so future students could use the parts. 

“Before we had these flat wires, we had different wires with the kit that weren’t working,” Zamarripa said. “We would have so many inaccuracies. Once we switched to these wires, which the university provided, it became more accurate. We were allowed to be more creative and we didn’t have to scale back because we didn’t have any limitations.”

Zamarripa — who had the fastest robot, named The Flash — said the students’ success in the showcase came from making as many attempts as they wanted and being removed from the stress of time constraints.

Fellow student Kaitlyn Vadney agreed that access to materials and immersive projects so early in the engineering program was unexpected. 

“The fact that in our first semester we’re already doing a full real-world project that involves coding and building, and that stays true throughout the four years of engineering here, I think is very different,” she said.

While Tivnan and Zamarripa came into the program with some engineering knowledge, Vadney had none. She said she struggled initially to pick up coding during the first units, but found guidance in her classmates and Batrouny when she found herself stuck.

Tivnan also said the experience was a “very nice change of pace.”

“In this class you can really see the application of engineers,” he said. “A lot of times you don’t get into the real-world stuff until later in your college career. I think Cornerstone of Engineering is a great way to keep your interest for engineering and it gives you a sneak peek at what’s to come.”

Looking forward, Zamarripa said he’s taking all the software he learned with him, including programming language C++ and design software AutoCAD. The day after the showcase, students were working on building websites to display their work in the showcase, already showing off their budding portfolios.

Students said they felt the collaborative energy and were grateful for the opportunity to put their skills to the test so early. They said the showcase was, above all else, fun.

“Even though at one point we were failing to meet the requirements in the end, we would eventually get there,” Zamarripa said. “We had our groups and we would ask each other for feedback.”

At the end of the third challenge, Vadney said she felt a combined sense of relief and excitement that her robot, Echo, succeeded in solving the mazes.

“We coded it correctly and it did all the things it was supposed to do, which was borderline a miracle because sometimes the robots are a little bit finicky. They have an attitude,” she said with a smile. “It’s been really fun and interesting.”