Robot Masters

Santa Clara rides the automation wave with a new master’s degree in robotics.

In our imaginations—and all over media—robots are either coming for our jobs or coming to relieve us of our burdens. Could the truth be something else? Santa Clara hopes to educate future generations of human robotics leaders steeped in the values that will make the world more just and eager to address its issues through automation.

This past school year, SCU quietly rolled out a new master’s of science degree in robotics and automation with seven enrolled students. The School of Engineering graduate program projects that within five years, each year it will produce at least 10 graduates and field more than 30 applicants.

Professor Chris Kitts, the director of the Robotics Systems Laboratory, says there were many motivations in developing this degree—including significant student demand in a national educational market that has not caught up to meet it.

Robotic Arm Realistic Composition
The demand for robots—and people who can build them and/or work with them—is only going to keep growing. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the operational stock of industrial robots increased by 13% on average each year between 2015 and 2020, with more growth expected due to the pandemic. Illustration created by macrovector via freepik.

“There’s a large and increasing demand for master’s-level expertise in this area as evidenced by the hiring of my students, local postings, the number of companies expressing interest in being program partners, etc.,” Kitts says. This kind of automation technology, he continues, “is rapidly evolving, it is pervasive across numerous industries, requires truly interdisciplinary knowledge, and motivates issues outside of engineering that SCU is uniquely positioned to address.”

Because of Santa Clara’s Silicon Valley location, robotics master’s students can gain real-world experience with a wide variety of industry partners and truly impact the the world while still in school. And, as with all of SCU’s educational programs, this one includes examining the ethical implications of automation and producing things that help humans, not harm them.

The first student recruited and accepted to the program, Michael Aboh ’23, says he was attracted to the kinds of projects being developed in the Robotics Systems Laboratory. “I remember seeing a video about the RSL on YouTube and how it was involved in making robots for land, sea, air applications, even agricultural robots,” he says. “That was a big difference from other labs I was looking at, most of which had very narrow areas of research.”

Aboh is an international student from Nigeria and says the kind of automation he’s studying could make a big impact on the people back home. A major problem there, Aboh says, is lack of food, caused in part by an underfunded agricultural sector, and too few farmers. “One of my dreams has always been to come into the space of agricultural automation, not just in my home country but on the global stage,” he says. “My main motivation is the belief that no one deserves to be hungry or food insecure.”

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