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Student Relationships With Robots Are Purely 'Platonic'

Gathered around the new SCARA robot in the College of Business Administration's Sower Technology Laboratory are, front row from left, Shamir McDaniel, Jacob Parkins, Lupe Schneider, Kyle Klock, Daniel Hirsch, Paige Dunlap and Wade Pate. Second row, from left, are Michael Middlebrook, Ryan Griffin, Professor Sower, Brian Pape, Timothy Cobb, Tyson Mire and Jason Farr.

Business administration students at Sam Houston State University are learning the newest uses of automated tracking devices and industrial robots through a method as old as the philosophies of Plato.

Some of the students have been extremely innovative, and even programmed a robot to receive a bucket of golf balls and place them one by one on a golf tee. While the golf ball exercise may not sound useful, it was part of a learning process directed by Vic Sower, professor of operations management in the College of Business Administration.

Sower has won both the SHSU Excellence in Teaching (1996) and Excellence in Research (2001) Awards as well as the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation Award (2005). He has been teaching Sam Houston State students about the latest trends in automation since 1993, when he acquired a robot known as a Mentor flexible manufacturing cell.

Timothy Cobb at work on the new SCARA robot.
Even before that he was a big fan of Plato.

"It is not enough for students to simply have 'heard about' an innovative concept," said Sower. "Plato's four forms of awareness are imaging, perceptual belief, understanding and insight, and to be truly prepared they must progress through each step."

"Imaging" can come from textbooks, he explains. "Perceptual beliefs" involves hands-on experience. "Understanding" is the student connecting the classroom and lab to the real world. "Insight" is creativity and innovation, sometimes achieved as a student but sometimes only later in a career.

While "flexible manufacturing" relates primarily to technology, it is also a "philosophy." "Innovation," "agility," and "customer service" are some of its characteristics.

The Mentor robot is used to study how an organization can change design processes in reaction to customer needs. This involves such areas as producing different parts without major retooling, changing to production of new products, and rapidly increasing or decreasing production.

The work Sower and his students did with Mentor won an award for innovation in education from the Southwestern Business Deans Association. It was also the subject of papers published in the Journal of Management Education and presented at conferences of the Israel Society for Quality and the APICS (operations management) association.

A paper on this approach to teaching about the radio frequency identification system was presented at a conference at Baylor University last year and is being submitted for possible publication in a management education journal.

The paper's authors include Pam Zelbst and Ken Green, both associate professors of management at SHSU, and Sower.

Over the years Sower's students have gone into the work force and done well with the training they received at Sam Houston State. Now they are returning the favor.

When Sower began a project to upgrade Mentor and another "servo" robot, to purchase a companion robot known as a SCARA and equipment relating to radio frequency identification technology, many responded with donations.

A total of $33,000 was raised, which also included funding from the College of Business Administration and contributions by Sower, Zelbst, and other SHSU faculty members and alumni. The room in which the equipment is used was designated as the Sower Technology Laboratory.

One of the new acquisitions was a $15,000 SCARA (Selective Compliant Assembly Robot Arm). The SCARA is a "pick and place" robot used in industry for applications such as putting components on circuit boards, inserting items in packages, painting automobiles and placing boxes on pallets.

The picking and placing golf ball exercise was done to document the robot's accuracy and precision, but Sower jokes that he is looking into its possible application at country clubs and driving ranges.

Some believe that radio frequency identification will eventually replace bar codes.

"Wal Mart, among other retailers, has recently mandated that its top suppliers provide RFID tags on their merchandise," said Sower. "New passports will contain an RFID tag. Some say that eventually we will have all of our medical information on an RFID tag on a medical ID card."

Some SHSU students seem to have already reached Plato's "insight" level.

One idea from a class taught by Zelbst last semester was to use RFID chips in special education classrooms so that blind students could use RFID scanners for identifying and describing objects. Another, taken from the tragedy at Virginia Tech, was to use RFID chips to allow building and classroom access only to students registered for classes in a building at a specific time.

"If Plato could come back and see what we're doing," Sower said, "I'm not sure what he would think of golf balls or the SCARA robot. But I believe he would recognize our educational method."


SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Feb. 1, 2008
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