The Explosive Evolution of Hopkins Robotics

At a recent Hopkins Board of Trustees meeting, two robotic dogs from the startup robotics company Unitree stole the show when they walked through the doors and wove their way around chairs to the center of the room. 

“The goal of these robotic dogs is to teach students about pattern recognition, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and how robots make independent decisions,” explained physics and robotics teacher Lynn Connelly, who brought the dogs to tease a new course that she launched this spring at Hopkins. Head of School Matt Glendinning invited Connelly to the meeting to provide the Trustees with an update on the School’s robotics program. With the grand entrance of the dogs, Connelly demonstrated what was already clear: the program has come a long way since its humble beginnings.

With Connelly at the helm and exciting new frontiers to explore, thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the future of the program is bright. Just seven years ago, however, it was only an idea in need of a spark.

Bringing Robotics To The Classroom

That spark came when Connelly joined the Hopkins science faculty in 2017 with the mandate of starting a program from the ground up. Long before arriving, Connelly was “deeply fascinated” by the field of robotics. 

“This has pretty much been my whole life,” she said. 

An electrical engineer with a background in industrial robotics, Connelly traces this passion back to her undergraduate days at Northwestern and graduate school experience at Michigan State University, when she worked on projects like designing a circuit for robotic arms. Her excitement for this work later translated into the professional setting, working as a software engineer at Cummins Electronics and later as a manufacturing engineer at Ford Motor Company. Ford allowed her to contribute to projects involving industrial robots, and she took this passion into the classroom setting when deciding to make education her career. After starting a robotics program at her previous school, Connelly joined Hopkins with both teaching and real-world experience under her belt, making her well suited to help shape the future of the program.

The Robotics Program began to take shape after a group of students formed a club to bond over their love of experimenting with robots. In their first year in action, the small group of enthusiasts was already entering robotics competitions when Connelly was asked to build a multifaceted educational program. Her vision began with one ideal in mind: robotics should be for everyone.

“I wanted it to be very accessible to all levels, regardless of skill set,” said Connelly. “I felt that it was important to have something for everyone from grade seven through twelve.” 

With this framework in mind, she designed a curriculum aimed at giving students—beginning in seventh grade—the opportunity to make incremental strides towards bolstering their knowledge and capabilities. 

“I think the best way to proceed in robotics is just little successes along the way," said Connelly.

The program also benefited from small wins as Connelly was awarded a grant and added a global citizenship element to the technical skills students were learning. The curriculum was designed to put students in the driver’s seat by encouraging them to identify problems within their chosen communities and explore ways for robots to solve them.

“We’re not building a robot just to build a robot; we’re engineering a solution,” explained Connelly.

Examples of student projects from her classes included a robot that autonomously managed the watering and feeding schedule for hydroponic lettuce and a tennis ball sorter with a machine learning AI aspect.

In keeping with the program’s commitment to social responsibility and diversity, students have also engaged in community-oriented projects with the Society of Women Engineers. 

The Program Today

Connelly’s aim to bring real-world robotics applications into the learning environment has been highly effective. The program has grown from fewer than ten students her first year to now over one hundred students participating across various parts of the program each year. At present, students in all grades have the opportunity to explore and learn the various aspects of robots. Areas of focus include the mechanical, electrical, and computational facets of a robot, as well
as learning the importance of iterative robot design.

“My goal was to integrate robotics seamlessly into the educational fabric of Hopkins, creating an environment where students can cultivate their curiosity and creativity,” said Connelly.
As Connelly set out to do from the start, there are now clear steps students can take beginning early on in their Hopkins journeys. In Junior School Robotics, seventh- and eighth-grade students learn to build, code, and test robots for basic functionality and then custom-design various add-on features for more advanced robot functionality. In High School, students can choose from entry-level robotics classes or upgrade to more advanced levels that include AI and machine learning. 

Hopkins On The Global Stage

Beyond academic classes, Connelly expanded the robotics landscape at Hopkins by enhancing the experiences of extracurricular activities and clubs, allowing students to explore their interests further. Some students are even showcasing their skills on the national and world stages, as Hopkins currently boasts two high school competition teams under the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) program. Every year, teams are tasked with designing and building their own robot to meet the competition’s guidelines. Since 2018, Hopkins has qualified for state championships each year and has also competed at New Englands and at
the World competition level.

In fostering collaboration while preparing for competitions, Connelly emphasizes teamwork. 

“We are two teams, but we make sure that we help each other out,” she stated. Connelly also sees the positive impact these kinds of activities can have on students beyond their high school careers.

“Competitions provide students with a real-world context for their skills. They learn to adapt, innovate, and work as a team under pressure—while bonding as a team and developing strong friendships,” said Connelly.

Connelly has created an environment where everyone is able to participate in the competition process even if they are not on one of the competition teams. This was achieved through the formation of a training team where students prepare for competitions, learn the hardware and software involved, and build a robot to solve the same problem issued by the FTC. 

“Our aim is to go beyond traditional education, offering students dynamic spaces to explore and express their interests,” said Connelly.

Sparking The Next Generation

Connelly enjoys seeing students grow their own passion in this field, much like she did as a student herself. The robotics club has become a nexus for students like Jacob Ceisler ’25, who discovered his passion for robotics when he entered Hopkins in seventh grade. Ceisler’s story is a testament to how the transformative power of education can align with a student’s passion, as the program has guided him from a curious middle schooler to a current robotics team captain with engineering aspirations beyond Hopkins. Ceisler’s initiation into robotics began when he spotted it on the list of activities available and decided to join along with a few friends.

“It was a lot of fun, and I just fell in love with it,” remembered Ceisler, who has since enjoyed working with Connelly in class and has flourished in the competition setting. Ceisler highlighted the team dynamic as his favorite aspect. “It’s not just about robots; it’s about being around people who love it as much as you do,” he said. 

While Ceisler considers himself more inclined toward planning and building, his role evolved when he became a captain of one of the competition teams. He said this position provided him with an education in leadership and management, enabling him to guide others in their growth and capabilities.

“I’m trying to let others learn for themselves how fun and satisfying it is to do the building and the coding,” he said. The exposure to teams from schools all over the world has also inspired him and his teammates. 

“We love seeing the designs from other teams. It makes us want to always improve our approach,” he noted. Connelly hopes more students will be inspired by the stories of Ceisler and others who have been motivated to continue robotics beyond Hopkins.

“I want my students to learn the robotics technologies that are being taught at the college level and combine this with AI concepts and capabilities to prepare them for their future studies in science, robotics, and engineering,” said Connelly.

Connelly, who is currently working on her second master’s degree in Robotics Engineering through the University of Michigan with a focus on AI and Machine Learning, continues to brainstorm ways to enhance the Hopkins Robotics program and its offerings. She said
no matter what new technological advancements are added to the classroom setting, the life lessons students gain are paramount. 

“Understanding how to troubleshoot and problem solve in a team environment is what I want students to leave Hopkins with,” said Connelly. “Robotics is a great vehicle for doing that,” she added.

While the remote-controlled robotic dogs that visited the Trustee meeting may appear to be a novel addition to the program, Connelly’s vision, much like the program itself, is that they will become a known fixture on campus.

This article was originally printed in the 2024 Issue 1 edition of Views from the HillClick here to browse the full issue.
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