Student Member Launches Makerspace and Robot Competition at the University of Houston

These IEEE student branch programs teach technical skills in a fun way

5 July 2018

Student Member Denny Luong recently graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, but not without leaving his mark on the school first.

As the student branch’s resource chair of the University of Houston’s IEEE Student Branch, the senior created a joint makerspace for IEEE student members and the university’s other students. Anyone, regardless of major, can get involved and learn how to build their own electronics.

He also launched the Build-a-Bot robotics workshop and competition, which increased students’ interest in the field as well as participation in the makerspace.

In this interview, he tells The Institute about his endeavors and how being involved with the student branch helped him land his first job.

Tell us what goes on at the makerspace. What type of projects do students work on?

It’s a place where students from every background can come to design and build projects, learn new technical skills, and have access to resources, like 3D printers. For example, we’ve had art majors who have integrated electronics into their work.

I worked with fellow Student Member Chad Hoang to create an installation on campus that interacts with students through an augmented reality app. Students can point their smartphone at it, and information would be displayed on their screen about the campus, such as a map of the nearby buildings and where the cafeteria and coffee shops are. They would also be able to see virtual characters, similar to Pokémon Go, walk across their screens.

Since we’ve graduated, we left the project to the next group of students in the makerspace to take it over. We’ll check back to see how creative they got with it.

As the director of the makerspace, you launched the Build-a-Bot event. How did you come up with the idea?

I had the idea for a few years, but I didn’t have the resources to make the event happen. Once we had access to a makerspace, it was possible.

The goal is to teach students technical skills and apply them in a fun way, such as through a competition. The first event was held in April, and it was a success. More than 70 students participated. We learned a lot from the first event, such as the need to offer more workshops prior to the competition to teach students technical skills.

The student branch is going to hold the event every semester.

Now that I’ve graduated, I’ll be staying involved as a mentor. Next semester we plan to offer additional workshops to give students more time to learn how to code and understand how electronic components work.

What do students learn at the workshops?

They first are taught about programming with Arduino. Next, student branch members teach them about hardware, including breadboards and sensors. A week later we have them put their skills to use at the competition by building a line-following robot, like the one shown below, which can follow a path drawn on paper with the help of infrared sensors.

To make it more challenging, we also teach them how to program the robot to pick up objects in its path and move them to another location.

We have facilitators at the event to help students when they get stuck.

How is a winner selected?

There are judges from the IEEE Houston Section as well as employees from companies like Texas Instruments and Mouser Electronics. The winning robot is selected on its speed, how accurately it follows the line, and whether it was able to pick up and move objects, as well as its appearance.

How did being involved in the student branch help you?

Although it can be time consuming, there are lots of benefits. It has given me leadership opportunities and other skills. It also taught me how to build up my résumé. But most importantly, it offered many networking opportunities.

If I weren’t in the student branch, I wouldn’t have had as much access to our department chair and wouldn’t have been director of the makerspace.

It’s also helped me get my job, because the hiring managers liked that I had so much leadership experience. The time put in has been well worth it.

After a road trip this summer, I’ll be starting my first job at the IT consulting and services company Avanade. As a consultant, I’ll be traveling to clients to assist them with Microsoft’s business platform, which includes analytics, cloud, and digital marketing programs.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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