by George Zamora

SOCORRO, N.M., Feb. 16, 2004 – A New Mexico Tech electrical engineering professor has developed an online robotics textbook that utilizes the most up-to-date Internet technology, such as three- dimensional imaging and interactive math formulas, and has made the cutting-edge coursework freely available to users throughout the world.

Stephen Bruder, the author of “An Introduction to Robotic Manipulators — An Online Course in Robotics,” developed the e-textbook during a recent sabbatical he took away from the research university while working at Sandia National Laboratories.

“I found that teaching robotics is not particularly well-suited to static presentations, such as those that are typically made using traditional printed textbooks or by an instructor writing diagrams on a chalk board in front of a classroom,” Bruder says.

As he worked on developing an online textbook as a viable alternative, Bruder soon realized that a three- dimensional presentation would have to be given priority status.

“First, I knew I had to make it interesting, and that’s where the 3-D illustrations came into play,” Bruder explains. “Second, this online textbook had to be dynamic and interactive, so that students could direct the learning process, or at least become active participants. And, third, I knew I would have to adapt certain technologies and capabilities that didn’t even exist up until the last year or so to allow students to do calculus and other advanced mathematics on their computers over the Web.”

With the help of several graduate students and a fellow faculty member at New Mexico Tech, by the end of his yearlong sabbatical Bruder was able to accomplish what he had set out to do.

“An Introduction to Robotic Manipulators” is now available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, Bruder says, as long as anyone wanting to peruse the online textbook has access to a computer, a modem, a phone line, and a newer version of commonly used web browsers.

“Actually, my first goal in developing this online first course in robotics was to make it viable through phone lines,” Bruder says. “By using tools such as Virtual Reality Markup Language, the files that are sent out from our dedicated server are relatively small. It’s then up to the user’s local computer to do all the sophisticated processing.”

Bruder’s online textbook is designed to be used in a senior-level robotics course at New Mexico Tech — as it will be, probably as early as this coming fall semester—but he says that because the way it is setup and written, even a typical Tech freshman could probably follow along and successfully complete the self-paced course.

“High school students enrolled in advanced studies might also be able to master some of the course material,” Bruder says, “particularly if they know some calculus.”

By using free, downloadable software, which is linked to the textbook’s homepage, students using the online robotics textbook can simultaneously work on interactive illustrations while verifying results with online calculus-based software.

“Much like traditional teaching, the textbook progresses from using simple examples to working with more complicated, sophisticated robotic systems and devices,” Bruder says.

Some of the real-world examples presented in the online textbook range from robotic arms, which students can order in kit form for about $200, to the Andros Wolverine, a medium-sized, tank-like robot which military personnel and police departments throughout the world have taken to deploying in hazardous and life-threatening situations.

“By using real robots in the simulations, students who can afford to purchase the robotic arm will also be able to manipulate it on the computer screen and have the actual robot right there on their table top,” Bruder points out. “They’ll now be able to see and work with the actual robot, instead of just seeing the theory presented to them on some chalk board.

“I’m hoping this new approach to teaching robotics will further entice students to become an integral part of the learning process,” he says.