(ROSENBERG, Texas) – Texas State Technical College instructor Charles Sparks would like to help you reframe what you picture when you think of robotics — specifically in the context of TSTC’s Robotics Technology program.
“Most people think they know what robotics is, but they really don’t have an idea,” he said. “We don’t do toys. We don’t do drones. This is strictly industrial robotics — we are very highly geared toward industrial controls and automation. Robotics is basically the icing on the cake.”
TSTC offers an Associate of Applied Science degree in Robotics Technology in a hybrid format, combining virtual learning with hands-on lab time. At TSTC’s Fort Bend County campus, Sparks has organized each of the five semesters he spends with his students with care.
“The first semester is an intro, which is a very broad term, but we go through what a robot is, all the safety aspects of a robot, how many types of robots there are,” he said. “It’s a very huge overview. They also get to put their hands on the robots and do some very basic programming at that point.”
Programming is menu-based, not coding-based, Sparks clarified.
“With that said, the menu-based programming is quite intensive — it’s very elaborate,” he said. “If you think of the branches and the twigs on a tree, there’s probably tens of thousands. There’s a lot of familiarization, which takes time.”
As students’ understanding of the field expands, so does the array of experience they get in class. The second semester of study encompasses relay logic, which includes — to put it simply — building their first control panel from scratch. After they get AC and DC circuits and AutoCAD practice under their belts, it is time to begin what Sparks considers the most essential part of their education.
“They’re getting their hands-on skills, and they’re getting their mind set to what is their most critical training: critical thinking,” he said. “They have to problem-solve. They really have to become a technician at this point, which makes them useful for an employer.”
The third semester is the time for robotics students to delve into sensors and automation. They immerse themselves in deep-level, menu-based programming while Sparks leans on them to be thorough in their documentation.
“A field service engineer, they go all over the country and the world,” he said. “It’s the documentation they bring home that gets their corporation paid — and it tracks what they’re doing and why.”
During the fourth semester, students explore interfacing and robotic vision systems. Vision systems essentially give the robots eyes, enabling them to recognize and inspect objects and shapes. The robotics lab on TSTC’s campus in Fort Bend County has five robots with vision packages. Interfacing includes integrating the outside world into the robot’s software.
“I tell them, ‘I want this to perform this,’ and they make it happen,” Sparks said. “Not only do they have to look up all the data sheets, they decide how they want to make it perform. They’re really thinking on their own two feet at this point.”
The culmination of the program takes place in the fifth semester in the shape of a capstone project that prepares students to hit the ground running in the real world. Sparks expects his students to create a fully automated and functioning work cell that incorporates all the technology they have learned.
“The customer can say, ‘I want an automated work cell that accomplishes this,’ and they (the program’s graduates) can do it from scratch,” Sparks said. “They’re very skilled technicians at that point.”
Robotics technicians can make an average annual salary of $52,010 in Texas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Onetonline.org forecasts a 13% growth in such positions over the next seven years.
The program is also a part of TSTC’s Money-Back Guarantee initiative — a testament to how confident the college is that robotics students will get a job in their career field within six months of graduation.
If they do not, TSTC will refund their tuition.
Sparks does not see an issue with a lack of career opportunities for his students.
“Everywhere,” he said about where robotics graduates have gone on to work after TSTC. “Tesla, Samsung, Control Concepts, Toyota, Frito-Lay, Amazon — anything that uses automation.”
Learn more about TSTC at tstc.edu.