The Force Is Strong With These IC Students

By Jessica Troskosky, May 30, 2019
A “Star Wars”-inspired senior project encourages students and educators to embrace the experience of learning.

When a small team of Ithaca College students set out to build a life-sized working replica of BB-8 from “Star Wars,” they weren’t sure they could do it. But they relied on the immortal words of Yoda: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Associate professor Edward Schneider knew if you take students’ interests and marry them with a creative learning environment, great things will happen. He had this in mind when he advised communication management and design student Garrett Chin ’18 on his senior project to construct an operational BB-8.  

The 18-month undertaking wasn’t only about building a prop replica of BB-8. The goal was to create one that was affordable and included instructions educators could use in a makerspace environment, a collaborative workspace inside a school or library.

“We wanted schools to know two things. One, that there is a lower barrier of entry for a robotics program. And two, that students are more excited by education connected to fandom,” said Lauren Suna ’20, the project team’s robotics consultant.

Chin secured $800 in funding through a James B. Pendleton Student Research and Production Grant and the Roy H. Park School of Communication’s Innovation Lab sponsorship. His next challenge was to identify a team with the right interests, experience and background to support the endeavor. The team led by Chin included Suna, Avery Herzog ’18 and Bennie Lemus ’18. Suna had robotics experience from high school. Herzog was a Park School animation student responsible for developing the BB-8 graphics. Lemus was a finance major who helped with budgeting and building the robot.

With a team ready, it was time to design and build the robot. Chin turned to the BB-8 Builder’s Club, a forum that has thousands of ways to build a replica. Chin synthesized a dozen plans to create one plan that would fit in the budget and make sense for an educator to put into practice with students. Chin said, “We had to ‘Frankenstein’ the build, taking parts of designs from many different builds and mixing them together.”

In the Park School Innovation Lab, the team 3D printed, sanded and fit together roughly 100 parts. This was followed by picking out parts for the robotics, which included the body-rolling ball, head movement on top of the ball, and the head electronics.

Throughout the process the team tested the plans and robot build with Tompkins Cortland Community College and The Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES, which both have an interest in using the plans with students in the coming year.

A woman posing with two "Star Wars" droids

Lauren Suna ’20 poses with R2D2 and a scrubber droid at the “Star Wars” Celebration. (Photo provided) 

Chin’s senior project culminated in a panel discussion, “STEM Education Meets Droid Building,” at a “Star Wars” Celebration event in Chicago. Chin, Suna, Herzog and Schneider inspired an audience of more than 75 educational professionals with their development of the BB-8 prop replica.  

The Walt Disney Company invited the team to showcase the BB-8 prop replica and discuss their process and the implications for robot building in STEM education. Schneider moderated the panel with the students answering questions about how they designed and built the working BB-8 and how to implement something similar in educational environments.

My favorite part about the panel discussion was the diversity of attendees, who were all connected through a common interest in engineering and fandom,” said Suna.

Suna’s role on the panel was to talk about what was next for IC’s Park School makerspace, and she will take the lead from Chin to create a new project.

“Now that we’ve shown schools what they can accomplish with a limited budget and a 3D printer, it is time to turn our attention to how we use the BB-8 we created,” said Suna. “Human Robotic Interaction is a very exciting new field of study within informatics and we can now partake in that research. In addition, we can research connecting fandom with community service by bringing BB-8 to various events or places around Ithaca. The future direction is truly endless.”