‘Solving for equity’: A Michigan Robotics course flips the script on engineering ed

ASEE Prism magazine explores how linear algebra could level the playing field.

A new introductory robotics course at Michigan Engineering turns traditional curriculum on its head in an effort to improve equity. 

Robotics 101, launched in Fall 2020, was highlighted in ASEE Prism magazine’s latest issue.

The course aims to invite in rather than “weed out.” Calculus is not a prerequisite. The course teaches linear algebra—critical for coding but typically not taught until after four semesters of Calculus—in an applied setting. Students use it to solve large-scale problems related to robotics with hundreds of variables, rather than simply solve tiny sets of equations. 

To improve inclusion further, the class brings in students from two historically Black colleges— Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta, to learn remotely alongside U-M students. 

Jessy Grizzle, director of the U-M Robotics Institute and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the course is based on the understanding that talent is uniformly distributed, but opportunity is not.

“The current system favors AP credits and hence is biased against students of lower economic means and high schools that provide fewer opportunities,” Grizzle said. “We realize that we have been undeserving these students for a long time and it’s time to change our approach.”

The disparities have profound ripple effects for individuals and society. “(D)iversity in the classroom is essential for creating advanced technologies without bias in a world where machine learning algorithms are making hiring, financial, and even incarceration decisions,” the article states. 

“We know we’re not training the right people to do the right things ethically and across backgrounds right now,” Odest Chadwicke Jenkins, professor of computer science and engineering at U-M and associate director of Michigan Robotics’ undergraduate program, told Prism. “To have more diversity [among the developers] and in the executive suite, you need to have diversity in the classroom.” 

Grizzle and his colleagues believe the new approach is long overdue.  

“The current way of educating engineers in math and science has not really changed since Sputnik,” he said. “It’s outmoded. Linear algebra is the language of Information, AI, data, and autonomy. These four areas are revolutionizing society and they should be revolutionizing how we educate engineers.”

Grizzle is also the Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor of Engineering, the Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering.