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Brad Bishop knew he was going to do something in robotics the first time he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator robot on the big screen. As a high school student at
Bishop, a University of Illinois electrical and computer engineering alumnus, stayed true to this vision, studying robotics under Mark Spong at CSL in the 1990s and then teaching robotics at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. This year, his innovative classes earned him the Naval Academy’s highest teaching honor -- the 2008 Civilian Faculty Teaching Excellence Award.
“Teaching is just a chance for me to bring what I love to the students,” says Bishop, who received his PhD in ECE from the U of I in 1997. “If students buy into the idea that what you are teaching is relevant and valuable, and you let them have a good time, they are going to do whatever you ask.”
According to Bishop, the Naval Academy has some unique perks -- such as students who call him “sir” and stand at attention when he enters the room. But what really drew him to the Academy was the primacy of teaching at the school.
“I like research,” he says, “but teaching is my primary calling.”
Bishop hails from Carrollton, Kentucky, a small town between Louisville and Cincinnati, and he took to the high-tech world at an early age when personal computers were just arriving on the scene. In fact, because his family didn’t have a computer in 1981, he says he learned to program on the demonstration models at the local Radio Shack. With customers coming and going, this sixth-grade whiz kid sat in the store window programming.
At the U of I, Bishop discovered his love of teaching as a teaching assistant, working out of the old CSL building in a room that, according to legend, had housed the famed ILLIAC computer.
“Brad was an outstanding student and researcher at CSL,” says Spong. “For his PhD work here, he developed the first robotic system that could play air hockey competitively against a human. He did everything from developing new theory and algorithms for adaptive visual servoing and hybrid nonlinear control to hardware design and software development. His work generated considerable interest worldwide and was even mentioned by then Vice-President Al Gore in his speech at the U of I in 1998.”
The air hockey robot also won the best video prize at the 1998 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, and it appeared in “Way of the Puck,” a 2006 film that won a Gold-Remi Award at the Houston Film Festival.
Bishop joined the Department of Weapons and Systems Engineering at the Naval Academy in 1997. Then in 2000 he initiated the Academy’s first mobile robotics class, a non-traditional course in which students form teams of three and then solve a series of stringent robotic challenges.
In the terrain challenge, for instance, students must design fully autonomous robots that can execute a 90-degree turn on an upside-down mouse pad and then move up a 40-degree slope studded with toggle bolts. Next, the robot must cross a wide gap, then go down a hill covered with foam insulation. Finally, the robot drops 6-1/2 inches into a sand pit filled with rocks and a large chain. It must crawl out of the pit.
Students in the class also develop two major projects of their own, which in the past have been anything from robots that open doors to robots that can locate and hit a target by firing Legos.
Bishop also introduced an emerging technology class to the Academy -- a course that covers three emerging technologies each semester, such as human genetic engineering, nanotechnology for nanomachines, and cybernetics for limb replacement.
Students must project what is possible given the technology in each area and then predict what will happen in the future. This requires students to take into consideration not only the technology, but also the politics, economics, and ethical concerns.
In addition to innovative classes, Bishop introduced the first honors program in engineering at the Academy. He also does research on unmanned surface vessels and robot cooperation through swarming, but teaching remains his main focus.
“One thing I tell students is that they’re smart enough to understand anything going on in the world around them,” he points out.
This lesson hit home with one student who didn’t have a high opinion of his own abilities. A few years after graduation, this student approached Bishop at a conference and said he was doing advanced systems work for the National Security Agency. He told Bishop he never would have followed this career path if Bishop hadn’t convinced him that he was smart enough.
“He might never have used the skills that he had,” Bishop says. “But he did.” And that is precisely why Bishop became a teacher.