The stakes have never been higher in the Bryant University Rotunda as the competitors prepare for their exhibition matches. Teams work tirelessly to ready their champions, solving problems on the fly that push them to the edge of their limits as Professor of Science and Technology Brian Blais floats from group to group, offering expert advice and last-minute support.
Primed, polished and ready, the rivals come to life as they size up their opponents and the clash begins. Coaches and trainers look on as their pupils take on all challengers, making final adjustments along the way to ensure performance and guarantee success.
The robots are ready to win.
In Bryant’s "Artificial Intelligence and Robotics" course, teams of students build functioning robots that can compete in board games like Breakout, Connect Four, and Tic-tac-toe and consistently defeat human opponents. Along the way, they study key concepts in coding, engineering, and AI — lessons they put into practice through hands-on experience.
“It's a very practical project, where students can see the results of their work. But there’s also an important level of creativity to it, as well,” says Blais. “They develop their own solutions to the problems they come across and are able to solve those problems in a lot of different ways.”
The power of programming
The students come to the class with a range of programming experience, but the robotics project helps all of them see their studies, and their own potential, in a new light. “The first week of class, when we first started talking about the project, I thought, ‘There’s no way we’re gonna be able to do this,’” says Data Science major David Poretsky ’23. “But as we kept learning new piece after new piece in class, week after week, it was really just a matter of putting together everything that we learned. You come to understand that this is actually something that we can do.’”
“It’s a really fun way to put what we've learned to the test.”
In addition to practical knowhow, the coursework also focuses on competing theories of artificial intelligence and decision-making as well as ethical issues related those areas. “You start to realize that the potential is really kind of limitless,” says Adam Dahill ’23. “If you start with a project like this and can keep expanding on it, you learn that you can really do a lot. I think that's pretty cool.”
In order to build their robot champions, the students learn to code strategies and responses; design and create prototypes from LEGO bricks; and wire in sensors and motors, adding engineering elements to the project that help students understand the real-world application of their knowledge. “It’s a really fun way to put what we've learned to the test,” says Natalia Kuipers ’23. “And being able to physically see where your code goes wrong adds another level to what you’re learning.”
Through the course, students learn to use Python, a high-level programming language. “I’ve found that being able to program is one of the most transferrable and useful skills you can have. It can be applied literally across the board,” says Blais. “A robotics project like this helps students learn those skills in a fun way.”
For Anxhela Elezaj ’23, a Finance major who is currently a portfolio manager for Bryant’s student-run Archway Investment Fund, the course is an opportunity to learn more about concepts that are quickly becoming invaluable to every field of endeavor. “Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more important every day,” she notes. “Learning about programming, and getting experience with it as students, is going to help all of us in the future.”
Room for creativity
No two robots created in the course are identical and the teams are given the freedom to tackle the project in their own way. “One of the things that makes this exciting is that we built these ourselves,” notes Gianni Coelho ’23. “You develop a connection to what you’ve built, and you want to make sure it works as well as you can make it work.”
"I think my favorite thing about the course is that you get to use your brain more holistically.”
“We’ve been having a lot of fun building the robots, and you even start to feel a little proud of them,” affirms Kuipers. “It was really amazing the first time we saw it do what we told it to.”
The design element also allows the students to express themselves in different ways. “I think my favorite thing about the course is that you get to use your brain more holistically,” says Coelho. “You put together the mathematical design portion and the creative portion and you get to find the harmony between the two.”
Rising to the Challenge
Ensuring the robots are able to “see” the board, decide on strategy, adapt to their opponent’s choices, and physically move game pieces requires students to test a variety of skills including problem solving and rapid iteration as their designs and knowledge evolve. It also means being able to trouble-shoot issues, both digital and mechanical, as a single mistake can have big consequences.
“Every little move you make, anything that you change, is going to have a direct impact on everything else you’ve done,” says Coelho. “Sometime that means a little thing goes wrong and the whole thing breaks, which means you have to rebuild the whole thing.”
“I think we really are our best selves when we are pushing ourselves and trying to solve difficult problems.”
Putting it altogether and testing their work in real time helps students gain a new perspective on its underlying principles. "Figuring out how something works related to the code and then being able to fix it helps you to understand how it really works,” says Nathan Mulder ’23. “You start to realize out what you're going to get before you actually run a program.”
Learning to deal with complex issues is an important element of the course, says Blais. “I think we really are our best selves when we are pushing ourselves and trying to solve difficult problems,” he says. “When the students are finally able to overcome an obstacle, there’s a real ‘ah ha’ moment.”
When that moment comes, says Ethan Savoie ’23, it makes the entire struggle worth it. “The first week of class, we were doing some simple coding, just to create a box with a cursor in it. The first time I was able to do it with no help, well, it was the best feeling, and it motivates you to do more.”
“I think that what I’m most proud of about this project is going through the entire process: encountering problems, solving them, and moving on to the next one,” reflects Michael Chiang ’23.