MENOMONIE — Eating with a spoon seems like a simple task. However, it takes many small movements with hands and wrists and is difficult to replicate in robotic arms.

That is just one project students worked on during the eight-week UW-Stout Robotics for Assistive Technology Research Experience for Undergraduates class.

The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program aims to improve the technology to enable robots that would allow the elderly and those with disabilities to keep living independently, according to REU co-director Devin Berg, associate professor of engineering at UW-Stout.

Cheng Liu, associate professor of engineering, is the other co-director.

UW-Stout has four undergraduate engineering majors and one graduate program, which are part of the Robert F. Cervenka School of Engineering.

The REU started on June 18 and ended Aug. 10. Each of the eight students receives a $4,000 stipend and had their room and board is paid for a $230,400 grant from the National Science Foundation. The three-year grant is in its third year.

The goal of the program is to help prepare students for graduate school, targeting first-generation, underrepresented minorities, women and persons with disabilities, as well as students from schools with limited research opportunities.

“The projects the students are working on, there are no easy solutions,” Berg said. “We try to continue the work from year to year. It mimics what they would be seeing if they do go to graduate school. They would work on a major project and advance it in some small way.”

As part of the program, students take part in workshops on how to apply to graduate school and take the graduate record exam, the entrance exam for graduate school.

Berg enjoys the students who are participating in REU. 

“I get to bring in new people, and I get to learn from them and hopefully advance the research,” he said.

The eight participating students and their home schools are Sujay Bajracharya, Cleveland State University; Derek Belsky, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania; Alyssa Boccardi, Duquesne University; Meghan Hill, West Virginia University; Benjamin Klave, California Polytechnic State University; Samantha Metevier, Seattle University; Kayla Sneller, St. Cloud State University; and Emily Swanson, UW-River Falls.

Helping hand

Sneller, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering; Swanson, a senior majoring in physics and Metevier, a senior computer science major, recently worked on a continuum manipulator for assistive technology to update the backbone of the flexible robotic arm.

“Our interest is to create an affordable alternative for people that is safe and flexible, “ Metevier said.

The team used a nickel titanium alloy to create the spine of the robot and added fishing line to apply force to guide the spine. 

“The big thing is if we can get it to work effectively to help people out,” Sneller said. “We have to test to see if it will be useful. The math behind the movements is very complicated.”

Sneller said she was interested in the REU because she wanted more experience working in robotics. 

“I really like the idea of using robotics to inspire kids to go into STEM,” she said, referring to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Swanson is interested in working in the prosthetics and biometrics area and to “help people live the best life they can.”

Research experience

Bajracharya and Belsky recently worked with a meal assistance robot. Using the Kinova JACO robotic arm and a Kinect, they are continuing research to allow users to feed themselves using facial expressions or voice commands.

“It’s quite a complex set of motions,” said Bajracharya, a senior computer science major. “What we do almost without thinking with our hand is hard to program. That is one of the challenges.”

Bajracharya sought out the REU to get more research experience. “It’s been a challenge how to get the robotic arm to pick up food effortlessly and accurately,” he said. “It’s a challenge we may or may not solve.”

Belsky, a senior computer engineering major, said the REU course helped teach him what graduate school would be like. He said he thinks he would enjoy attending graduate school but may work in his field first and then continue his education.