Why do we need a Robotics Department?

The Robotics Executive Committee has prepared a brief rationale explaining the case for a Robotics Department at the University of Michigan.

In addition, U-M users can view the Robotics Future Initiative Committee presentation.

Note that this reflects the opinions of the Robotics Executive Committee and not those of the College or Robotics Planning Committee.

Robotics is growing.

Interest in robotics is growing.

Six years ago, the Robotics Institute did not exist. Now, Michigan Robotics is an interdisciplinary group of 27 core faculty that span 14 departments, coupled with 42 affiliate faculty.

There are nine other graduate Robotics programs in the U.S. Many are developing undergraduate programs. Smaller schools are proposing their own Robotics-focused technical degrees.

To reap the potential advantages of a Robotics Department, U-M must move quickly. If forming a Robotics Department is delayed, other institutions will become the leaders and take the available reputation, student and faculty candidates, research and industry collaborations, and influence on the shape of future society. Not just in Robotics, but across all fields.

How creating a Robotics Department will help…

Undergraduates.

Robotics teams are quickly becoming a favorite activity for elementary, middle, and high schools. A University that has a Robotics Department, major, and even minor, will help draw these students in even if they study a different subject.

In addition, a Robotics Department with an undergraduate curriculum can help by:

  • Exposing students to robotics and artificial intelligence concepts early in their degree program and allowing them to be more open-minded to other engineering majors
  • Providing another pathway into robotics and artificial intelligence that can balance student enrollments, lessen hyper-competitive environments, and encourage and retain a diverse student body
  • Training students to meet current and future technical demands of the robotics workplace and compete for the most promising and highly skilled jobs

To get an even better sense, watch the entire presentation on how we built ROB 101 and the undergraduate curriculum.


Provide new pathways.

While talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not. A Robotics Department can help create new pathways to connect talent and opportunity and foster growth.

In the pilot ROB 101: Computational Linear Algebra course, the only prerequisite was knowing the quadratic equation. Whether or not your high school offered AP Calculus did not matter.

By capturing the enthusiasm around robotics, we can continue to build entrances into engineering as a whole–and help avoid attrition throughout the higher levels of education.


Attract new faculty.

Not only are undergraduates and graduates interested in robotics, but also the latest post-docs and researchers. To better recruit this faculty talent, we must offer a position where they can pursue these interests, which may otherwise be a secondary interest in established departments.

In turn, established departments can better recruit faculty, while using a collaborative Robotics Department as an example of one of the many benefits to joining U-M.


Bolster an inclusive culture.

Robotics, itself, requires thinkers from a vast array of fields and backgrounds. We’ve defined values of Michigan Robotics that foster a culture of compassion and inclusion, which also can help address social injustice. 

As we develop an undergraduate program, we do so with inclusivity in mind. The first pilot course of this program, ROB 101, focuses on nurturing interest as opposed to weeding out students. We are also working with HBCUs as this program is developed, with 10 students from Morehouse and Spelman joining the first class of ROB 101.

We are laying the foundation for a Robotics Department that begins to change the way students are educated and engaged, culminating in a program that will lead the field as this new discipline emerges.


Collaborative research for society.

The current structure of the Robotics Institute causes challenges and inequity, including:

  • A lack of financial autonomy
  • Excessive faculty service work
  • A lack of academic support

The creation of a department would alleviate these challenges, restore a more equitable environment, and strengthen the unit to be a leader amongst top schools, reflecting well on the University as a whole.

It would also strengthen the research capabilities on fundamental challenges within the discipline, and help bring enabling devices and assistive technology to vast populations.

The University is at a crossroads.

Computing and automation are changing the technical world. Disparities are changing society. How can we lead as an educational institute?

By building a leading Robotics Department, that leverages the University’s strengths across fields.

Explore examples of how robotics has connected across Michigan disciplines

Art

Robot Docent

Can a conversation with a robot actually make you think differently about art or the people who created it?

Read more.

Architecture

Robot Garden

Creating architecture based on a cache of satellite photos and a neural network.

Read more.

Medicine

a man stacks cubes with a prosthetic hand

Mind Control Prosthesis

Michigan researchers have tapped faint, latent signals from arm nerves and amplified them to enable real time, intuitive, finger level control of a robotic hand.

Read more.

Work together. Create smart machines. Serve society.

Frequently asked questions

What changes are under consideration for Michigan Robotics?

Dean Alec Gallimore convened a Robotics Department Planning Committee to build on the work of the CoE Robotics Future Initiative begun in Fall 2019. In spring 2020, the Robotics Future Initiative Committee summarized possible paths to move forward, including the possibility of a new Department of Robotics. A new Robotics Department Planning Committee was charged in January to use that basis to create a formal proposal for how a Department could be created, incorporating parallel planning for an undergraduate curriculum in Robotics.

Rationale

Why is this under consideration now?

Leaders in engineering research and education around the world are investing heavily in robotics, recognizing its near-term potential for breakthroughs in fields as diverse as assistive living devices, manufacturing, emergency services, transportation and more. In this extraordinarily competitive and fast-moving discipline, Michigan has a limited window to secure its national leadership and create the conditions in which Michigan continues to attract the best faculty and students, equipping them to do their very best work.

What are some advantages to creating a standalone Robotics Department?

At a time of ample need for roboticists, a full-fledged department would help Michigan and the College of Engineering meet this essential need and student interest, while better supporting robotics faculty. Creating a Department of Robotics would establish Michigan as an early leader, elevating the stature and reputation of our roboticists, the College, and the University. This would provide Michigan with an important advantage in the intense competition for students, faculty, and funding. A department and undergraduate program could provide enhanced learning opportunities for students across CoE, as well as identifying new opportunities for scholarship and funding for faculty across the College.

What data do you have to determine the demand from students and from industry?

While commissioning primary market research that could predict the number of enrolling Robotics students within a few individuals is possible, the Committee discovered that this would add more than a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the planning process. Instead, the Committee is assembling a wide array of informal surveys and secondary research to help test widely held assumptions that there is strong industry demands for roboticists and strong student demand for robotics degrees. As of mid-April, sources include Robotics Institute research into other robotics departments, a Mechanical Engineering Department survey of department faculty and students, and a growing collection of media reporting. The Committee has also engaged the College’s Nexus office to conduct a significant secondary research project that will be completed by June. Research findings and sources will be included in the Committee’s final report.

How would a Robotics Department enhance collaboration?

The Robotics Institute has already established a culture of openness and collaboration, gathering and adapting to input from a wide variety of stakeholders over the last five years. That culture of collaboration would be part of the new department’s DNA.

History

How long has this proposal been under consideration? 

In 2012, Dean Alec Gallimore, then ADR, commissioned a white paper to provide recommendations to catapult Robotics at Michigan to national prominence. That report outlined needs in three areas: education defined by a new interdisciplinary MS/PhD program; facilities, specifically space for co-location of robotics faculty and students; and research collaboration, defined by the formation of a Robotics Institute.  Based on the whitepaper, a graduate programwas launched in 2014, graduated its first PhDs in 2019, and now has over 1,000 MS + PhD applicants per year. The Robotics Institute was launched in 2017. In addition, the whitepaper described the need for a  building. In 2017, during the Victors for Michigan Campaign, Ford Motor Company made a $15 million gift supporting the building, which opened on January 19, 2021. 

In fall 2019, Dean Gallimore convened the CoE Robotics Future Initiative, a working group of faculty and administrators, to analyze the current situation and consider opportunities to further advance work in robotics. On February 20, 2020, the Initiative submitted its preliminary findings to the faculty. The group’s analysis presents a strong rationale for creating a Department of Robotics and an undergraduate program in Robotics. Later in Spring 2020, the committee presented its findings to College Leadership. Here are the slides the Robotics Future Initiative Committee used in lieu of a formal report (their charge did not include a formal report). In fall 2020, the Robotics Institute launched its first undergraduate course, ROB 101.

In January 2021, Dean Gallimore convened the Robotics Department Planning Committee to build upon the findings of Robotics Future Initiative. The Committee will meet throughout the spring, consulting with faculty and other experts on questions such as faculty and staff headcounts, graduate and undergraduate enrollment, budget and research revenues, and a transition timeline. By June the Committee will present its specific recommendations to the dean and College faculty for consideration and approval.

Process

What is the process for creating a new department in the College of Engineering?

According to the Rules of the College, the formation of a new department must be approved by the faculty and authorized with the Board of Regents (Article V.A). In this case, in June 2021, the Committee will present its specific recommendations to the Dean and to the College of Engineering Executive Committee for consideration. They, in turn, will present any proposal for a new department to the faculty for a vote of approval. Undergraduate programming will go through the usual process for approving new curriculum.

How will the Committee develop its proposal?

The Robotics Department Planning Committee will meet throughout the spring, consulting with faculty and other experts on questions such as: 

  • Faculty and staff headcounts
  • Graduate and undergraduate enrollment
  • Budget and research revenues
  • Transition timeline The Committee’s full charge, including its membership, can be found here.
How will the Committee ensure transparency for this process?

Transparency is critical to this process, both to successfully develop recommendations, but also to establish the trust and goodwill that will enhance collaboration across the College, and support success for a new department. The Committee is actively soliciting comments and questions from all Engineering faculty [LINK], and will update faculty throughout the process, including presentations during College and departmental faculty meetings this spring, as well as regularly updated information  on this page. When complete, the Committee’s recommendations will be presented to the full faculty, with supporting rationale and data, with opportunities for  faculty to discuss and ask further questions.

Who is being consulted along the way?

From its introduction, the Committee has solicited the comments and questions of the entire College faculty, recording that input, considering it as a Committee, and addressing it in this FAQ document. Committee representatives have met on several occasions with Departmental Chairs, and presented to individual departments upon request. The dean and associate dean also devoted part of their recent meetings with each departmental faculty to the work of the Committee and the formation of a Robotics department.

Effects on other departments

Would a new department divert resources and talent from existing departments?

This new committee will consider both what is optimal for research and teaching in robotics, as well as steps the College should take to ensure that new structures and programs benefit the entire College. Dean Gallimore has said he is  willing to consider how the College must grow overall to ensure that it can create a nationally leading Department of Robotics while continuing to pursue excellence in all of its other departments. Part of the charge of the Committee, which includes the chairs of other departments, is to explore the effects of the new department on all other departments and develop mitigation strategies where necessary.

Will creating a Robotics Department hurt the rankings of other departments?

Faculty coming from other departments to a new Robotics Department could keep a partial or courtesy appointment in their original  departments, so that their prestige would benefit both. Based on the activities already underway in the Robotics Institute, faculty leaders believe a new department would be highly ranked. They  also believe the proposed undergraduate program can be a model of inclusivity and diversity, shining a positive light across the entire College of Engineering. 

Would a new Robotics department control all hiring of roboticists?

Departments would still retain control over hiring their own faculty, regardless of specialty. Just as specialists such as biomedical engineers, materials scientists, and machine learning experts can now be found across many departments, we expect that roboticists will still be found across the College, with or without a Robotics Department. Robotics faculty leaders believe collaboration and the naming of jointly appointed and affiliate faculty should also be hallmarks of a new Robotics Department.

What is the model for joint appointments and faculty affiliation?

Planning for the Robotics Department assumes that it will include a significant proportion of joint appointments. While there are several examples of joint appointments, the College has no set model. The Committee is currently holding meetings with other department chairs, in hopes of developing a model for the Robotics Department that will serve all departments involved. Any arrangement recommended will benefit junior faculty in Robotics, who currently have service requirements in both their home departments and in the Institute.

Research

How would a Robotics Department affect research in the field?

Robotics faculty research expenditures continue to show significant growth, outpacing the addition of new faculty; over the past five years, research expenditures have increased from $5.6M to $16.0M, nearly tripling despite the addition of only five faculty members (~20% new faculty). The infrastructure and resources of a department would accelerate that growth and provide new opportunities for faculty and students.

Staff

How would a Robotics Department affect staff?

As an Institute, Robotics currently does not have dedicated IT, grants management, or finance support. Robotics staff must currently perform these duties in addition to their own. The creation of a robotics department would alleviate these challenges for Robotics staff and restore a more equitable environment across the College.

Ask your own question or submit comments.