Hands on at a distance: Evodyne Robotics Academy continues education online

STORY BY CEDRIC CHAN AND CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

If Evodyne Robotics Founder and CEO Raghav Gupta had waited just five more minutes, he knows he wouldn’t have been able to secure the domain name of his dreams. He spent a year coming up with the immaculate arrangement of letters and refreshed the purchasing page every day for a month, waiting for the 10-year lease of a German guy in China (the then-owner of the domain) to come up and free his company’s rightful website title. 

But finally he had his opportunity. He clicked the ‘buy now’ button faster than you can say “Evodyne Robotics,” and it was all his. Gupta emerged triumphant with his prized trophy: evodyne.co. It was perfection. 

Evodyne Robotics, now complete with its domain, strives to give high school students a hands-on and comprehensive education about the world of robotics, providing courses using a custom-designed robotic arm kit. 

The six-month program is split into month-long sessions, building up the robotic arm to do increasingly complex tasks. Students start by building the mechanical parts, and those who continue code mobile phone apps to control the robot, attach wheels and a webcam to drive it remotely and eventually enable autonomous navigation. 

The program, however, had to undergo massive changes with the onset of COVID-19. The switch to go online was a “weird moment,” Gupta said, especially given how much of robotics is rooted in hands-on work and instruction.

Seeing it as an opportunity to expand the program, though, Gupta soon embraced the change. The classes shifted to Zoom, with materials mailed to participants in kits. Initially, Gupta struggled with demonstrating work over the video platform and working with students individually, as camera angles and quality could not simulate a live classroom for detailed work. But Gupta’s later addition of a webcam to kits allowed instructors to better monitor student progress as they would in normal sessions.

“The teaching has to be adjusted so that everybody can do it at the same speed,” he said. “The ones that do work faster don’t get bored, and the ones who got stuck on a step don’t start getting overwhelmed by the fact that they are behind.”

Despite the difficulties, Gupta said that “every single day we are able to improve some aspect of the robot based upon feedback from the kids.” Now not limited to students within driving distance of their Downtown Mountain View location, Gupta said online instruction has also opened up new possibilities for expansion; Evodyne has begun enrolling students from throughout the rest of California, and there’s even interest coming from as far as New York.

As Gupta continues to expand Evodyne, he’s also started to introduce a new initiative aimed at uplifting women in robotics. Gupta said that despite the robustness of many high schools’ robotics programs, girls have not always felt welcome.

Aileen Mi, a Lynbrook High School student who attended one of Evodyne’s summer sessions earlier this year, said that this effort was one of the factors that drew her to Evodyne in the first place. Prior to participating in Evodyne’s program, Aileen attended a Stanford course on embedded systems, but soon realized that she was the only female in her class. 

“There is inequality and under-representation in robotics,” Aileen said. “My experience with that drew me to Evodyne.”

Aileen is now interning at Evodyne Robotics, helping with its marketing and outreach.

“I hope when other people see that girls are doing these things, and we are working hands on with the robots, girls will be more interested in wanting to do something like this because it is a male-dominated industry,” she added, speaking about her own participation in the program.

The results are encouraging, as Gupta said that groups like Monta Vista High School’s Girls Who Code Club have requested a robotics program specifically targeted for girls.

“I have noticed that girls in local high schools are interested, but they get intimidated by the size and scope of the high school robotics programs that are already there,” he said.

These large high school robotics programs are further beset with too great a focus on artificial competitions, Gupta said, preventing students from getting a deep understanding of all aspects of the building process. These competitions, which generally involve challenges such as hurling a large ball as far as possible, are not realistic representations of the robotics industry today, he said.

“They designed their robotics programs to mimic high school sports, which is around big and heavy things,” Gupta said, later referring to football. “And there seems to be less focus on students learning the finer aspects like if you think about surgical robots, they are not big and giant, there’s a precision involved.”

Another shortfall that Gupta noted was that high school teams use the JavaScript language to code their robots despite modern robots using Python and C++ languages almost exclusively.

“It’s a good program, but I believe that it has fallen behind in teaching students the skills that modern robotics companies are looking for,” Gupta said.

Aileen said that Evodyne’s smaller initiative felt more genuine and authentic because Gupta and other instructors were more focused on a holistic understanding, even going so far as to delve into the physics and electronics behind what they were building.

Gupta echod this, saying that he wanted to make Evodyne’s program represent the future of the robotics industry in which they “will be everywhere in the consumer space.” In a few years, Gupta said that a fundamental knowledge of robots, like the education that Evodyne provides, will become invaluable to students hoping to succeed in STEM, just as computers have.

“Kids are already coming up with ideas which excite other kids and are exciting to me personally,” Gupta said. “My hope and my goal of having a robot on every desk and in every home, seems to be slowly taking some shape.”


Find more information about Evodyne Robotics at its website, and sign up for its January robotics session at the Robotic Academy page.

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