ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Robert Brenneman didn’t know what to expect at the 2022 IEEE SoutheastCon Hardware Competition in Mobile, Alabama. As captain of the UNC Asheville’s IEEE Student Chapter, Brenneman and his 11 team members developed a robot not knowing whether it could compete at the level of their competitors.
“It was like we were at the bottom of the hill looking up for the majority of the project.”
The UNCA team left the competition with a second-place trophy, beating top engineering schools in the region, like the University of Florida, Virginia Tech and Clemson. UNC Charlotte took first place.
For Dr. Eli Buckner, UNCA IEEE Student Chapter faculty advisor, his team’s top finish demonstrates the level of STEM education available in Asheville.
“We can compete. The quality of education that the students get is really high. This project and this competition was just one example of how these students can succeed coming out of this (program).”
The UNCA-NC State Mechatronics Program, established in 1998, is one of four accredited mechatronics programs in the country, said Dr. David Ramsey, director of engineering at UNCA. Students in the joint program attend livestreamed lectures with professors from North Carolina State University, while labs and some lectures are conducted by UNCA staff. Although a joint program, students must be enrolled at UNCA as the program is not available on the NCSU campus.
“In the courses delivered from Raleigh to campus here, (students are) getting the same professors ... so there should be no difference in quality for that coursework,” Ramsey said.
As the designated liberal arts college in the UNC system, UNC Asheville, Ramsey said, provides an interdisciplinary education as well as a more intimate learning environment, allowing for the university to “produce a better-balanced student as a result.”
At this year’s SoutheastCon, student teams from various colleges and universities across the South were tasked with developing a Mardi Gras themed robot and constructing a small-scale, L-shaped parade route. For points, this robot had to autonomously navigate the route while completing tasks meant to simulate cleaning the streets of Mobile post-parade. These tasks included removing small bead necklaces off makeshift trees and into trash bin solo cups or nets, as well as pushing a marshmallow, meant to simulate a person, off the route.
With its flashing LED lights and upbeat music — additional features meant to gain bonus points — the UNCA robot successfully performed these tasks in each of the four rounds.
“For engineering students, a lot of classes that they take have to be theoretical. … This club serves as a possibility for them to take things they’ve learned in class and actually build something physical,” Buckner said.
UNCA and N.C. State collaborate to provide joint engineering programs, Buckner said. These programs provide students with the opportunity to take NCSU courses in Asheville, alleviating the need to travel and take courses in Raleigh. The students who participated in the competition are all in the mechatronics program.
Due to coronavirus safety guidelines, certain introductory robotics classes could not be held, minimizing hands-on learning opportunities for students, Brenneman said: “Coming out of COVID, some members of the team didn’t really have any robotics experience at all.” Most members of the team had never competed in a robotics competition before SoutheastCon.
Yet, as students in the mechatronics program, they all had one thing in common: Introduction to Embedded Systems. This course takes the theoretical concepts students have learned in previous courses and implements them in a physical build, Brenneman said, merging hardware with software.
Hunter Horan, a junior at UNCA, attributes this course as a reason he and many of his team members chose to participate in the Hardware Competition.
“Embedded systems implements a lot of the same skills,” he said. “There’s the line following portion of that class and a lot of coding. So, that kind of piqued a lot of our interest and built our skill base going into this project.”
Competition in Mobile proved to be quite nerve wracking, said senior Ryan Stacks. Every time the robot was turned on, “it was a huge exhale of air.”
Team members agreed that the most rewarding part of the competition wasn’t winning second place. Rather, it was seeing all their work pay off — developing a robot that did what it was programmed to do.