Computer engineering professor Gabriel Elkaim compares a robot to a washing machine: a washing machine cleans clothes automatically and doesn’t require human assistance. By definition, washing machines are robots.

“It’s so mundane,” he said. “You walk past it and don’t even think about it.”

Professor Richard Hughey explains the new robotics major’s function within the university’s engineering majors. Photo by Nick Paris.

Elkaim is a leading professor in UC Santa Cruz’s new robotics engineering major, which stems from the current computer sciences, computer engineering and electrical engineering programs. Students will be able to declare the robotics engineering major starting in fall 2011.

“Computer engineering has always been about designing things that do things,” said Richard Hughey, a computer engineering professor. “We’ve been expanding to computer networks. It was a very natural fit.”

Working within the robotics and control concentration or its predecessor, autonomous systems, are 43 of 129 computer engineering students, Hughey said. The new robotics engineering major will give these students a chance to earn a degree in this field rather than just a concentration.

“It very rapidly became our most popular concentration,” he said. “We thought, ‘Hey, we should do something for these students.’”

The formation of the robotics engineering major is at least eight years in the making.

“I was hired [in 2003] because they wanted a bigger robot emphasis,” said Elkaim, who teaches Introduction to Mechatronics, a class in which students build a robot in a 10-week quarter.

Hughey was computer engineering chair at the time and helped build the robotics engineering program. He said the biggest investment was hiring three core faculty members: Elkaim and computer engineering instructors William Dunbar and Jacob Rosen.

Elkaim holds “The Slugs Autopilot,” a device that controls unmanned automotive vehicles, or UAVs. Photo by Toby Silverman.

Hughey cited UCSC’s role as a research institution as a source of major strength behind the new major.

“Of course, the reason for going to a research university is because of the way research winds up in the classroom, putting courses on the forefront of — in this case — robotics technology,” Hughey said, “and because of the opportunities that faculty research produces for undergraduate and graduate lab work.”

Computer engineering professor Dunbar is teaching the only class that was added to the department’s course list with the new major: Introduction to Strength of Materials, CE-115. In Dunbar’s class, students learn about the balance of forces in the materials used to build robots. Using courses already offered by the computer engineering department allows the program to keep additional costs down, but Dunbar says that CE-115 was added to the course list because it teaches students crucial information.

“There’s no class like it here because there’s no mechanical engineering major,” Dunbar said.

Despite the creation of the new major, the engineering department is not unaffected by the budget cuts. Over the past three years, engineering faced $1.5 million in budget cuts and is looking at an additional $800,000 in cuts this year.

“The primary effect of this so far on the curriculum, and the robotics major specifically, has been the canceling of planned hires in robotics (starting about three years ago),” Hughey said in an email.

With few faculty members, students have few opportunities to participate in research and labs.

Computer engineering is making changes to afford the creation of a new major.

“We have been reducing the number of graduate seminars we can offer, as well as dropping the two-unit ‘Intro to CE’ course we used to do,” Hughey said in an email.

The department is also hiring for fewer, if any, positions in the next few years to adjust to the diminishing budget.

After giving it some thought, Elkaim is “unconcerned” for the students when he considers the intensity of the curriculum.

“We were a little worried at first,” he said. “We only have four years to teach this. It’s become one of the harder majors, and we were afraid that’d scare students away. But it had the opposite effect.”