Staff Q&A with Jonathan Fiene

Jonathan Fiene’s office is adorned with posters of his favorite sporting events and festivals from the past five years. But these posters don’t feature superstar athletes or rock gods; they highlight an assortment of student-built robots, most of which could fit inside a coffee can.

As the director of laboratory programs for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and part of the academic support staff in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Fiene is perhaps best known for the “Design of Mechatronic Systems” class he leads and its ambitious final projects. The projects require students to prove that they have synthesized their lessons by pitting their final designs against one another in raucous competitions, including a robotic hockey tournament known as “Robockey.”

There is no better test of the students’ understanding of mechanics, programming, and electronics—the body, brains, and nervous systems of their robots—as each aspect relies on the others to succeed in a real-world task, Fiene says. And while most classes’ final exams don’t have cheering sections or uniformed referees, it’s hard to argue with the results.

“Our undergraduates are succeeding with flying colors when it comes to putting together these concepts,” says Fiene. “It’s just phenomenal.”

Q. How did you end up at Penn?
A. My wife is [Assistant Professor] Katherine Kuchenbecker. We studied engineering together at Stanford and when she joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in 2007, I came along with her.

Q. What did your job entail when you first arrived?
A. The first semester I was here, I got to co-teach a couple of classes, including the mechatronics class, with [Professor] Mark Yim. We had done a project with maybe 25-30 students. But the following year, I took on the course solo and that was when we first started Robockey.

Q. How did you come up with the idea to combine robotics and hockey?
A. We wanted to drive the course through a final project that will really challenge the students but still fits in the scope of what we’re teaching. What could we have them do in the end? So we set this list of requirements, the skills they would need to have by that time, and this idea came along.
We had come up with the concept of making it hockey because I had a TA at the time, Joe Romano, who was an avid hockey player. He was a goalie.
We thought that a game like hockey would test many of the different topics that are inherent in the field of mechatronics—good mechanical design for passing and shooting, good electronics that are robust and reliable, and good programming that allows you to get involved in strategy, like how the robots are going to communicate and figure out where they are.

Q. How did that first season go?
A. That first year, it was tough. We were setting up the infrastructure for the first time—the rink, the sensors—which was challenging. The students were good sports about it, though.
For the next year, we updated a number of things, including a better way of figuring out where the robots are on the field. Robockey 2.0 was so much better than the year before. I thought there was no way we could top that. In 2010 we did something called the Robodeo. 

Q. Robodeo?
A. That year, one of the TAs had traveled out West and had gone to a rodeo. We had three events: barrel racing, bull riding, and steer roping. It was fun, but very different; the robots didn’t have to interact with one another, the students didn’t have to coordinate nearly as much, but it was still a melding of the three pillars of the discipline: mechanical design, electronics, and programing. But like the first time we did Robockey, Robodeo had all these glitches that would come up, infrastructure we needed to fix and update to make it run smoothly. But I already knew how to run the Robockey event so last year we decided to resurrect it because it had been so amazing.

Q. What do you think it is about these competitions that work so well?
A. One thing is that it’s a motivator. Not everyone is competitive, but a large percentage of people are; we key into that a bit. At some point, though, it goes well beyond the competition. Students get involved momentarily whether they win or lose a match. In the end they still get the same satisfaction from the process, because it’s such an involved one.
There’s a feeling of accomplishment of just being able to field a team of robots, or to be able to display the arcade game you built, or to be able to have people play with the toy or the puzzle you designed. These things are really motivating. 
Hopefully they also broaden the awareness of the other faculty, students, and the community at large as to what our engineers of tomorrow are capable of doing today. A lot of these things are truly very impressive. There are a lot of projects where I don’t know how well I would have been able to do this when I was a student.

Q. And you’ve run these kinds of projects with even younger students over the summers, right?
A. Penn has been running this SAAST program [Summer Academy in Applied Science and Technology] for a few years now. Two years ago, someone came to me and asked if I would be interested in helping organize and run the Robotics program.
So we designed the program around the microcontroller I’ve developed, which we use in the mechatronics course. The idea was to meld together some of the introductory content from two or three of the courses I teach to form the basics of mechatronics.
Could we teach high school sophomores, juniors, and rising seniors to program in C, which is a very fundamental language? Could we teach them how to build circuits with transistors and logic gates? Could I get them to synthesize mechanical design and get them to tie all of this together from scratch? And more importantly, could we go from them having no experience to getting it done in 13 days?
This is all pretty complicated stuff, so it was an open question. But I had a feeling the answer was ‘yes,’ and they could do it. It was great to watch. 

Q. What kind of competitions do these students do?
A. For this past summer, we got together with the teaching staff—which is big, I certainly couldn’t run something like this by myself—and realized that, being an Olympic year, we might as well play on that theme. So we came up with the Robolympics. But we had to brainstorm for a long time to figure out which of the events we would run. One that came pretty early on was to have them do something like archery. We could use the same IR [infared] cameras that the Robockey robots use to figure out where they are in the rink, but use them to have robots find a target. Plus, NERF guns and a lot of high school students in a lab is a lot of fun.
We also had a dash event, but we made it so the robots had to follow a curvy line so it would be more of a sensor challenge.
The third event was much more of a mechanical test: the long jump. The robots had to roll forward, sense the foul line, then jump over a gap in a platform into a pit. Not many of the students were able to field a robot in that competition, but one of them blew us all away. It had these coiled-up frog legs that it could deploy to launch itself half a meter.   

Q. What’s the difference between teaching college and high school students?
A. I find that teaching both of these groups ... has actually improved my ability to explain things at both levels.
The SAAST kids don’t necessarily understand differential equations, so if I try to talk to them about series of capacitors, they’re not going to grasp the math. So you really have to be able to articulate and relate to the students things that are more intuitive and really give them a sense of how these systems they are interacting with work together.
That’s the biggest challenge in mechatronics: you can’t separate the components from one another. You can’t take the electronics out of the robot and have it do anything, and likewise the electronics and programing don’t do anything without the mechanical design. Everything is intrinsically linked.

Q. So how does this help the older students?
A. Watching these high school students grapple with some of the more technical concepts really influenced the way I introduce the same topics to my graduate students. And I don’t think they feel like I am pandering to them or talking down to them. They’re realizing that they’re understanding the material better.
I’m still trying to fully develop it in my mind, but it’s clear that we can apply this to even younger students.
For example, my daughters, who are 7 and 8, said they wanted a remote control toy for the cat ... So I said, ‘That sounds great, but we’re not going to go to the store, we’re going to build one.’
They came to the lab and went through the whole design process, essentially just what the SAAST students do. And we ended up playing on stage at the Robolympics with the toy they designed.

Originally published on November 15, 2012