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March 30, 2017

SVSU students hope their firefighting robot douses competition at international contest

In its attempt to douse a fire, “Card-Bot 1.0” is blazing a trail for a new STEM-oriented student organization at Saginaw Valley State University.

At least that’s the hope of Rajani Muraleedharan, SVSU assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and the 30 students — and counting — she advises on the SVSU Robotics Club.

The first-year organization is gearing up to compete in the Trinity College International Robot Contest April 1-2 in Hartford, Connecticut. The team is building a 1-foot-tall robot — tabbed “Card-Bot 1.0” in honor of SVSU’s mascot — designed to douse a candle’s flame, which will be hidden within an obstacle course. The group will compete against other university students with the same goal in mind.

SVSU students aren’t new to the annual competition, but previous entries involved classroom-centric projects. Muraleedharan’s team won’t earn course credits for its work, and its members largely have constructed Card-Bot during long weekend sessions in SVSU’s Pioneer Hall.

“These are students with an open mind and a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” Muraleedharan said. “That’s all that’s needed.”

Muraleedharan began organizing the group in fall 2016, intent on creating a space where students with a variety of interests in the sciences could find a creative spark together.

Students majoring in a number of STEM-based academic programs are involved in the club: mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, health sciences, and chemistry. For a while, a health sciences major was involved, but the club interested her so much that she switched to a mechanical engineering major, Muraleedharan said.

“It’s a place where students can challenge themselves and be creative,” she said. “I wanted the students to be able to leave their footprint on something they built together.”

For the most part, Muraleedharan tries to let the students dictate the group’s direction. Her involvement as adviser largely is to support them and help them find funding for their projects. For instance, she helped secure the SVSU Foundation Resource Grant that paid for Card-Bot’s machinery, which includes a 3-D-printed husk and wheels, computer circuitry, and a motion sensor that will allow the robot to navigate the obstacle course. A built-in fan will douse the candle’s flame.

Muraleedharan’s empowering approach has worked, the SVSU Robotics Club’s members say. Club President Waqas Qureshi, a computer science major from Saginaw, said working with the group has allowed him to thrive in new ways.

“I’ve never had this kind of responsibility before, and I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ve never been part of something like this, where a group of people are this excited about working this hard. We’re doing it all for fun.”

Qureshi said the club hopes to enter a number of other contests, including a NASA competition that tasks teams with building machines that can mine on other planets.

Muraleedharan also hopes to recruit more SVSU students to join the club, and use their enthusiasm to encourage even younger students to pursue STEM-based studies. The SVSU Robotics Club plans to introduce Card-Bot 1.0 to the nearly 5,000 high school students expected to visit SVSU as part of the statewide FIRST Robotics competition April 12-15.

“That’s an opportunity to put our club’s work front and center, and to show them how much fun we are having here at SVSU,” she said. “The Robotics Club was meant to bring people together. That’s what we are doing here.”