In January 2022, sophomore and electrical engineering major Liana Tilton set out to start WashU Robotics Club, the first club of its kind currently at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I was captain of my robotics team in high school,” she explained. “I loved being a part of that team and all the opportunities that came with it. One phrase I’ll always remember and love is ‘robotics is the sport of the mind,’ and I really wanted to bring that experience to WashU.”
While creating a student organization from the ground up may seem to be a daunting challenge, Tilton received immediate interest and support from members of the WashU community. “To gauge interest in a robotics club, I sent out an interest form to students just to see if anyone would join,” she said. “I was shocked when I heard back from over 100 people!”
Knowing that the interest was alive among her fellow students, Tilton set up an initial group of 12 executive board members and was able to recruit a group of academic advisers.
“I was pleasantly surprised that we didn’t run into too many roadblocks as we were forming,” she said. “The support we’ve seen from the engineering faculty has been amazing, and I’m very grateful for that. I figured they would be happy for us to get started, but I never anticipated this level of enthusiasm.”
Once the group had the necessary building blocks in place, they were able to begin operating as a true robotics team. “One of the best things about our group is that we have all different kinds of students,” she said. “Every area of engineering is represented, and our ages vary — we have seniors working alongside first-year students. We are all able to use our strengths to accomplish some really cool projects!”
Club adviser Louis Woodhams, senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, reached out to a connection of his at Hands-On Robotics, a California-based company with ties to Stanford University’s student robotics club, which provided WashU Robotics with its first project — a Pupper Quadruped Robot kit.
“A lot of people have been interested in the robot dog,” Tilton said. “Building this project was the perfect example of how important it is to have members from all different majors in engineering. The MEMS students can build the robot, the ESE students can interface it, and then the CSE students can code it. Our strengths all come together. It makes for great collaboration. And who doesn’t love a robot dog?”
The club also worked together to build and program a robotic arm and a line-following car.
After several months of working as a group, the club was ready to host its first event, an Opening Showcase. Members invited the entire campus community to come see their builds and get to know the club. “We had a great turnout,” Tilton said. “Undergrad and graduate students showed up, along with faculty and staff. We even had people in the community outside of WashU attend. The public came and brought their kids. It was an amazing culmination of the first semester.”
“We are ready to welcome more members into the club next fall now that we’re established,” Tilton said. “One of our goals next semester is to begin outreach for local high schools and volunteer with the robotics organization F.I.R.S.T. Another major goal is to compete.”
In addition to the camaraderie the club provides, Tilton said she believes the club creates additional opportunities for those involved.
“Sometimes robotics can seem intimidating, but there is space for all skill and experience levels,” she said. “The hands-on experience aids the learning in the classroom and could one day help you in your career. Plus, you can learn to make an even better robot.”
Tilton said she believes that the sky is the limit when it comes to WashU Robotics. “I don’t know how we got so lucky,” she said. “It feels like there are endless possibilities for growth, especially in this environment of support where our ideas are welcomed and encouraged. I urge anyone who’s interested in learning more to reach out. I could talk all day about robotics and the club, so I’d love to chat and hear others’ ideas.”
Students interested in becoming a part of WashU Robotics can visit its website.