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UC Santa Cruz mechatronics course makes a lasting impact on students, local community

The crowd watches anxiously as UC Santa Cruz engineering students tend to their robots, making small, last-minute adjustments and tweaking the software before the round begins. Then with a loud cheer going up from the audience, each team releases their robot onto the playing field and the competition for Mechatronics begins. 

With a strong focus on experiential learning and collaboration, the foundational Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) course Mechatronics prepares students at the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering to tackle real-world problems with technical solutions.

Developed in 2005 by Gabriel Elkaim, professor of electrical and computer engineering, the mechatronics course blends the areas of electrical, mechanical, and software engineering—as well as techniques of systems engineering—to teach students how to program, fabricate, and control their own robotic devices. The class forms the core of the UCSC robotics engineering program, and UCSC continues to be the only campus in the University of California system to offer a robotics engineering undergraduate program. 

One of the students from Mechatronics Fall 2021 working on the final project
One of the students from Mechatronics Fall 2021 working on the final project.

For every offering of Mechatronics, students are given a new theme and series of tasks to accomplish for their final project. The most recent project Slugs vs Bugs II – The Zeta Variant had the robots navigate a playing field, locate randomly placed towers, and stuff ping pong balls through the correct hole in the tower—all autonomously. Each project requires robots to sense the field, figure out what to do, and execute the desired actions—without any intervention from the students. The course continues to be an engineering major favorite at UCSC and draws a diverse group of over 65 undergraduate and graduate students, with women strongly represented in the mix.

But that’s not all—Mechatronics has a substantial impact on the local and alumni community. At the end of the 10-week course, local schools, alumni, and members of the Santa Cruz community are invited to attend the course’s public demonstration, where Mechatronics student teams compete with one another in a thrilling showcase of their work. 

A finished robotic system from the fall 2021 course
A finished robotic system from the fall 2021 course.

The demo acts as the culmination of 10 weeks of intensive laboratory and hands-on work, and is a fun opportunity for community members to experience the student innovation happening at the Baskin School of Engineering and connect with students and faculty working at the forefront of emerging technologies. Typically, the public demo has over 300 people in attendance, including families, school-aged children, teachers, industry professionals, alumni, and current UCSC students. 

“I remember one student in particular at one of our past demos. He was from a local elementary school and probably eight or nine years old. When I looked over at him, I saw the biggest smile on his face as he was cheering on the robots from the front row,” Elkaim said. “At that moment, I could see how exposure to robotics and electrical and computer engineering, through a public event like this, has the potential to encourage students from an early age to get involved in engineering education. It’s important to continue providing these opportunities to introduce students to engineering and promote interest in STEM education and careers.”

Many of Elkaim’s former students stay connected with him long after they leave UCSC because of the course’s impact on their careers. Alumni often visit Elkaim’s class and share their personal journeys with his current students, touching on how Mechatronics prepared them for and now apply to their current roles. Many Mechatronics alumni have gone on to work at major tech companies in Silicon Valley. It’s not only an inspiration for current students to hear from these alumni, but it also provides them the opportunity to network for future job opportunities.

To get an inside glimpse of the 10-week mechatronics course, watch the UCSC Mechatronics YouTube video. If you’d like more information about the course or are interested in finding ways to partner with UCSC Mechatronics, please contact Professor Gabriel Elkaim at elkaim@ucsc.edu.

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