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Dr. Hod Lipson

James and Sally Scapa Professor of Innovation in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Co-Director, Maker Space Facility

Dr. Hod Lipson teaches the Robotic Studio, a hands-on robotics class where students learn how to design and build robots from scratch. The course averages 90 students, and having no prerequisites, enrolls students from first-year undergraduates to Ph.D. students from a wide variety of majors. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Lipson met the moment by developing a simulation track for the robotics course, leveraging 3D printing to enhance remote learning and collaboration, and rethinking course policies to enhance learning and growth. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Lipson did in his course, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Leverage Simulation to Enhance Online Learning 

Prior to transitioning the course to remote instruction in Spring 2020, students worked collaboratively on their robotics projects in the Makerspace. This space gave them access to the tools, parts, 3D printers, and all the materials they needed to complete the lab. Because the course was designed for in-person engagement, the move to online instruction required rethinking how these learning experiences could be recreated while students were learning from home.

The first thing I did was switch the remainder of the course to simulations. Instead of building a physical robot, we simulated the robot. I started by demonstrating how to build a simulation of a robot, and then taught students how to perform some machine learning, AI, and training in simulation rather than on a physical robot. This switch to simulation was my first instinct, and we learned as we went, but it was ultimately a good thing—the right choice. Until that point, I didn’t have a simulation component in the course, and as a result of this move, the course developed two tracks: the physical and the simulated.

Encourage Collaboration and Hands-On Learning

In Fall 2020, we sent every student enrolled in the course a 3D printer and the tools (e.g., screwdriver, wrench, soldering irons) and parts needed to safely design and build their robots from their own environments. In addition to giving lectures on Zoom, I also shared parts that students could download and print in advance, so we could all physically observe and manipulate the parts together during class discussions. Despite everyone being physically distant, I structured the course to allow students to work in teams, in pairs, or gave them the option to work individually. For students collaborating on their robots, I encouraged them to email each other the relevant files so they could 3D print the components and update their robot designs together.

Rethink Course Policies to Enhance Learning and Growth 

Student projects are becoming increasingly ambitious. It might be because students see past projects and they want to one-up their predecessors—lots of students are competitive! It could also be that technology is advancing, so what used to be really challenging technologically is now much easier. When you have access to lots of tools and can work from anywhere, you can do so much more than before, which encourages ambitious undertakings.

The format of student submissions also changed during the pandemic. Since we were all remote and assignments were virtual, students showcased their robots in action through video recordings that they shared on YouTube. This may be unique to robotics, but if you want to show a robot moving, it doesn’t make sense to write an essay about it. You’re going to record it and post a video. As a result, there’s much more student-generated content out there about this project and ones like it, and I think that accelerates learning.

The sharing of content and project videos brings up another point: we embrace students learning from each other and building off of previous work. In some ways, it feels like the opposite of what one commonly might think of academic integrity—telling students not to copy previous work—but in this class, students are measured on what value they add, so it creates a natural progression of ideas. I encourage students to watch as many videos as they can, see what others have done before, write down all the amazing ideas that everyone else has had, and then build off that great work to make their robots even better—to add value. We’re improving all the time, so if students want to build off others, that’s fine. They just have to make those ideas even better!

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Build in flexibility.

My main takeaway is that we can do so much more if we are flexible about presence. In many ways, it’s wonderful to work together in the lab. On the other hand, requiring physical presence can be a big constraint. Being flexible about presence can save us time and better accommodate work-life balance. For example, if a student has a child they need to take care of, taking the course remotely can alleviate the need for them to commute and arrange or pay for child care.

Something that surprised me about remote teaching and learning is that students who work remotely can really get more done. If their robot, tools, equipment, and materials are all at home, they can use any downtime they have to move their project forward a little bit. They can start the 3D printer and then go work on something else. This ability to do things in parallel saves time and allows students to be more relaxed. I’ve seen a lot of this beneficial type of multitasking happening, and I’d like to see more of it.

Our innovative approaches took off, and we never looked back. We’re continuing to be as flexible as we can with this physical/remote paradigm, because it’s the future. Now, students can build their robots anywhere. They can build parts in the Makerspace on campus, at home with their 3D printers, or a mix of both. It’s important to have the flexibility that we know is all too precious.

Teaching an online class where students interact and work as a team to build physical objects still has its challenges, but being able to work remotely with all the tools you need on hand has been a decades-long dream for engineers. Engineers in NASA probably do this already, but for first-year undergraduate students to each 3D print and build a robot they collaborated on with peers, regardless of whether they’re located in the US or China? It’s a dream come true.

Strive for better.

Don’t think about going back to the way it was. Think about how we can get to a better combination. How can we improve our courses and instruction based on what we’ve learned? I think the answer is going to be some kind of hybrid. It’s not going to be back to normal. 

In general, the bar has risen for everybody in a good way—students expect more, and I expect more as an instructor. If students need or want to take the class from home, they can still make progress on their learning and move forward on their projects. We’ve finally developed the technology that allows us to productively learn and work remotely. Everybody is now capable of doing more than before, so let’s embrace it. It’s opened up so many new opportunities for us, and I want to keep it that way.

In the future, I can imagine making this course open to the entire planet to serve those who do not have access to a university robotics course. It’s one thing to watch a YouTube video explaining how to build a robot, but to actually collaborate with others to build your own is a completely different learning experience.