via Harvey Mudd College magazine

Seth Isaacson ’21 describes himself as having been “obsessed with robotics” in high school. “When I came to Mudd, I wasn’t really done with it,” he says. “I wanted to do it at a higher level.” Isaacson met Ginger Schmidt ’21 and discovered she felt the same way. “We missed the community of our high school robotics teams and that extracurricular, STEM-focused aspect of our lives,” says Schmidt.

As they adjusted to their new, tightly scheduled lives at Harvey Mudd, Issacson and Schmidt couldn’t shake their desire to work on robotics, even if it meant losing what was left of their free time. “That’s where the idea for the Harvey Mudd Robotics Team (aka MuddSub) was born,” Schmidt says.

Students move robot sub with crane.
Seth Isaacson ’21, Ginger Schmidt ’21 and Kyle Rong ’22 check Alifie, the AUV they entered in the RoboNation RoboSub competition.
via Harvey Mudd College magazine

Along with Diana Lin ’22, Omari Matthews ’21, Kyle Rong ’22 and Daniel Yang ’22, Isaacson and Schmidt founded the Harvey Mudd Robotics Team (aka MuddSub) in 2018. With support from the Shanahan Student-Directed Project Fund, the students designed, built and programmed an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) named Alfie, which they entered in the annual RoboNation RoboSub competition in August 2019.

Team MuddSub and Alfie held their own against AUVs from teams representing schools from 14 countries and several U.S. states. They made it to the semifinals, which was as far as they could have hoped to go, given the capability of Alfie’s hardware, which is limited not by the team’s ability but by its budget. Isaacson and Schmidt estimate it will take approximately $40,000 to make Alfie competitive at the highest level.

Undaunted by budgetary constraints and buoyed by their success in the competition, the team began planning for the next academic year. They recruited more members, began to develop an organizational structure for the team and got to work on improving Alfie’s software and hardware. As of fall 2019, Team MuddSub membership is close to 25 people.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the group,” Isaacson says, noting that he’s embraced the challenge of organizing so many people. “Getting people up to speed on the project was a challenge because there’s a lot of knowledge that goes into starting to make design decisions.”

To help bridge the knowledge gap, Schmidt ran SolidWorks software workshops with all the team members. Motivating people to tackle such a large skill, especially outside of one’s regular coursework, has proven to be challenging. “Usually, a tradeoff of the Mudd course load is having to give up extracurricular activities like this,” she says.

But robotics is not something these students are willing to give up, for reasons beyond just their passion for the work. Both Isaacson and Schmidt say robotics experience is critical to their success after college. “I think the necessity of work like this is something that should be taken more seriously here at Mudd,” Isaacson says. “Every interview I have, this is what they ask about. This is what they want you to know.”

Schmidt agrees. “Interviewers don’t really care about what classes you’ve taken because, in theory, engineering majors at all schools have taken the same classes and passed.”

What potential employers are interested in, Isaacson says, is “what systems I’m working on. Am I dealing with real data? Do I have experience with building a real system that is subject to less-than-ideal conditions? I think in terms of preparing students to do real world work, there’s nothing better than projects like this.”

Indeed, MuddSub requires programming, machining and electrical design. Team members also gain understanding of more intangible concepts, like the way one element of the project relates to another. For example, Issacson, a mathematics major, says, “the team with the best software wins.” Schmidt, a mechanical engineer, says, “without a robot, none of the programming matters.” They both laugh, and Isaacson finds the truth in the middle: “Your software is way easier to write if your robot is really good.”

Organizational leadership is yet another skill required for MuddSub team members. In the early days, the founding team members set three guiding principles: Simplicity, scalability and stability. “Having defined our guiding principles early, when the team was only five people, turned out to be really helpful because it’s very well-defined and outlined. It provides a way to have a rational conversation about what to use on the robot,” Schmidt says.

Guiding principles also help the team stay focused on the long-term goal of formalizing a competitive robotics team at Harvey Mudd, a logical goal, given the prevalence of robotics teams at other liberal arts, STEM-focused colleges and the popularity of MuddSub on campus.

With a majority of first-year students making up the team, longevity looks possible. And recent funding news makes the goal seem even more attainable: A private donor has pledged $10,000 to the team, and MuddSub has again qualified to receive Shanahan Funds ($10,000).

Looking to the future of Team Mudd Sub, Schmidt says she wants it to continue to become more organized. “I’d like us to be completely self-guided, produce our own tutorials for future teams,” she says.

Isaacson also has a vision for MuddSub: “I want the team to win.”

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