CARV Laboratory’s Traveling Road Show Educates and Entertains

Mac the Robot Dog

It’s showtime at Montgomery’s Johnnie R. Carr Middle School, and ringmaster Eric Wetzel, an Associate Professor in Auburn’s McWhorter School of Building Science (BSCI) and founder of its Construction Automation, Robotics and Visualization (CARV) Laboratory, has his young audience in the palm of his hand.

The students’ attention is focused not so much on Wetzel, however, but on what he controls from his computer and tablet—a surprisingly animated robot named “Mac,” manufactured by Boston Dynamics. The robotics company is a division of Hyundai USA, the automobile manufacturer with its primary U.S. facility located in Montgomery.

Mac delights the crowd of sixth- through eighth-grade students with his antics, climbing stairs, walking backwards and—best of all—break dancing, while Wetzel rushes this way and that, explaining how Mac operates, taking questions and generally being the dancing robot’s straight man.

Associate Professor Eric Wetzel presenting at Johnnie R. Carr Middle School in Montgomery, Alabama.
Associate Professor Eric Wetzel presenting at Johnnie R. Carr Middle School in Montgomery, Alabama.

The middle school performance is part of an agreement between the CARV Laboratory and Hyundai aimed at engaging students in STEM as well as exposing them to the use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in industry. Hyundai not only covers the expenses for such events, but also donates to CARV.

“These presentations are valuable for a number of reasons,” Wetzel said. “They engage students in applied STEM, introduce them to an aspect of the construction industry they likely didn’t know existed and are a voice for construction around the state, region and—in a few cases—the U.S. and beyond. In terms of undergraduate student recruiting, these presentations may yield students for our program, but we won’t know for a few more years. But posts on LinkedIn and news articles about the events and current research has certainly caught the attention of undergraduate students looking to pursue a master’s or Ph.D.”

The Wetzel and Mac show isn’t just limited to Hyundai-sponsored K-12 appearances, however. The dynamic duo is in high demand to speak at industry events, construction conferences and anywhere else they can spread the word about BSCI and the cutting-edge applications of robotics and AI in the building profession.

“In addition to schools, I do numerous industry presentations,” Wetzel added. “These are usually more about the use of AI in construction, which includes robotics.”

And on this day at Carr Middle School, if the squeals and gasps of the Montgomery middle schoolers as Mac goes through his routine are any indication, then the CARV Lab Road Show is a great example of enthusiasm and education working hand-in-hand.

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Eric Wetzel