July 2, 2024

World championship-winning Purdue SIGBots on building robots, relationships

In the diverse world of clubs at Purdue University, Purdue SIGBots stands out not just for its technical achievements but for its strong sense of community and hands-on learning approach — and now the club has a robotics world championship under its belt as well.

SIGBots, one of Purdue’s Association for Computing Machinery special interest groups, is a student organization tasked with building robots for the VEX Robotics World Championship, the largest robotics competition in the world.

Max Johnson, who is entering his senior year at Purdue and studying multidisciplinary engineering, said he did competitive robotics in high school and wanted to join a club where he could continue honing those skills.

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“The difference with SIGBots, though, is that our robots are a little simpler, a little bit of a smaller scale, which turns some people away,” Johnson said. “The thing that I like is that you can do whatever you want within the club. You can get your hands dirty — whether it’s stuff directly related to your major or (something) completely different — because you want to learn new skills.” 

Fellow member Sean MacDonald, a senior in mechanical engineering, said the camaraderie is what drew him to the organization.

“Coming to Purdue, I looked at a lot of different clubs. With SIGBots I found a group of friends and a really nice community that I could become a part of,” he said. “It was an extracurricular that helped me work on my skills in mechanical engineering and also (gave me) a group of friends that I could enjoy spending time with outside of class.”

One major way the club is helping the robotics community grow is by providing resources like the PROS Robotics Operating System, one of the university’s largest open-source programming projects, and the Purdue SIGBots Wiki, a comprehensive guide that serves roughly 40,000 unique users monthly.

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“A lot of people struggle to find resources for the basics of engineering,” Johnson said. “You can find a million articles talking about torque, but very few that aren’t NASA research papers about how to apply torque when designing other mechanisms. This wiki is designed to help students at all levels of entrance learn how to apply skills and is targeted towards the VEX Robotics competition.”

The competition is an international contest that places student-built robots in head-to-head matches. In April the SIGBots became world champions when the team took home the top prize in the competition’s university division.

SIGBots’ faculty advisor, Gustavo Rodriguez-Rivera, associate professor of practice in the Department of Computer Science, was especially proud to see the team secure a victory on the VEX Robotics stage.

“Robotics and artificial intelligence are at the forefront of technology. Many high school students have been inspired by Purdue ACM SIGBots, their VEX Robotics team and the impactful mentoring it provides to high schools nationwide,” Rodriguez-Rivera said. “This first-place award will attract more highly motivated students to our academic programs and help our ranking.” 

MacDonald added, “It’s a big deal for us because this is the pinnacle of the VEX robot competition. My freshman and sophomore year, we came up just short of the world title for various different reasons, and I’d say that after finally achieving it, this was like the big payoff that a lot of our team was looking for.”

Beyond competing themselves, SIGBots members also actively foster the next generation of robotics enthusiasts by hosting competitions on Purdue’s campus for middle and high school students. 

“We’ve had a great time making the best competitions that we can for the students in the area, and we’ve had a lot of great feedback from that,” Johnson said. “We also host a university competition for the VEX U program each year.” 

Learn more about Purdue SIGBots here.


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