‘Twas the week before finals, and all through the classroom … robots were dancing to the classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye.

“When I told them their lab final would be a dance party, they said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” laughed Assistant Professor Curtis Holmes.

He was not kidding. And that’s how nine Electrical Engineering Technology students in Holmes’ Integrated Robotics class at Pellissippi State Community College ended up showing off their robots’ sweet dance moves Nov. 30 to an audience including several College leaders.

“This is what I would call a culminating activity,” Holmes explained of the assignment. “Throughout the semester, they had structured labs, but this was more freewheeling. They had to use what they learned this semester – no instructions! — to figure out how to make the robots move different ways and at different speeds to the song. They got a kick out of it.”

The class divided into three teams of two students and one team of three students and set about building the programs to make their robots dance.

“The whole class has been a blast,” said Sam Maxwell. “These are like very complex remote-control toys, and we get to play with them. There’s been a lot of troubleshooting as we learned how to maneuver the robots.”

“Choreographing the robot to move with the music and getting it to sync up right was a challenge, but otherwise, it was an opportunity to apply what we have learned this semester,” added Isaak Huffman.

While Holmes thought “they’re all winners,” he upped the ante by having Media and Engineering Technologies Dean Margaret Ann Jeffries and Associate Professor Anne Pharr judge the robotic dance-off.

Jeffries said she looked at the robots relative to a dancer’s perspective while Pharr considered them from a musician’s standpoint, as the two gave the class their feedback. For example, a robot programmed by Justin Burns and Josif Huskey reminded Jeffries of a belly dancer and made Pharr think of John Travolta, they said.

“If a dance reminds you of John Travolta, that’s a good thing!” Pharr clarified for the students.

Pharr praised Dawson Durham and Hayden Grindstaff for programming their robot in “one long loop” with 66 movements, while Jeffries liked the way Maxwell’s and Huffman’s robot stretched out and “used the whole floor very nicely with big, graceful movements.”

In the end, though, Jeffries and Pharr named the robot programmed by Jack Sutherland, Cole Shinlever and Chris Murill the winner. The three-person team had done extra work, writing five programs for their robot, which they noted engaged the audience.

“The red light was a nice touch, very much a disco feel,” Jeffries said of another component the team incorporated into their choreography.

“It seemed the most human of the robots,” Pharr added.

It was a difficult choice, the judges noted, as all the students not only met, but exceeded the challenge Holmes set before them for their lab final.

“You are the trailblazers here, and you’ve set the bar pretty high,” Jeffries said.

To see the robots in action, check out our YouTube channel. For more information about Pellissippi State’s Electrical Engineering Technology program, visit our College Catalog.

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