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Robotics division welcomes Baxter the robot

The robot, affectionately known as Baxter, as seen from the hallway outside the robotics lab. Photo by Saul Rodriguez

The robot, affectionately known as Baxter, as seen from the hallway outside the robotics lab. Photo by Saul Rodriguez

By Mary Primbs

If you walk by the window of Room 224 in Building 4, you might see an unfamiliar face through the window. Baxter the robot is the latest addition to the robotics department at Chemeketa. Baxter joined the students at the beginning of the 2016 fall term. 

The price tag for Baxter? “If you really want to know,” said Chuck Sekafetz, chair of the Electronics Technologies Program at Chemeketa,“$39,000. For a dual armed robot, $39,000 is about half as much as what a comparable robot from other manufacturers is.”

Chemeketa has other robots, but Baxter is the first of his kind for the college. “When you ask a person what a robot is, it’s really quite varied,” Sekafetz said. “The difference is, this one just looks cool.”

Sekafetz said he and his staff are still getting acquainted with Baxter and have only tapped into a portion of what the robot is capable of. Currently, the students in the robotics classes aren’t working much with Baxter until the staff has had more experience with the robot. “If you get a brand new Ferrari, would you let your kid get in and drive it right away? The reality is no.” Sekafetz said.

Although the students aren’t currently allowed to have much direct contact with the robot, when it arrived at the school, one of the students took it upon himself to get Baxter working. “The very first day we had Baxter, we hadn’t put him together.” Sekafetz said. “I was trying to figure out how to do the programming, and I was like, ‘I need to go look at the directions and figure out how to do some stuff’, I walk out a half an hour later, and he was moving. I was looking at him, and one of my students said ‘Oh, I just did this, I figured it all out.’”

Baxter will eventually be used to help the students learn how to operate and configure robots. “The students are going to learn how to do everything. If a student gets interested in something, more often than not, we’ll give them some guidance and then we’ll cut them loose on it,” Sekafetz stated.   

Sekafetz also takes Baxter to high schools around the mid-valley to promote Chemeketa’s robotics and STEM programs. “Specifically, the purchase of Baxter targets students interested in robotics and other forms of automation as well as other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) areas,” Sekafetz said.

The college is hoping to get its money back from the purchase of Baxter through boosting enrollment in the program, as well as receive other sources of funding to enhance the robotics department. “I know I’m going to be competing with some other schools here very quickly. There’s a lot of community colleges that don’t have a robotics program. They all of a sudden see what we do, and they realize, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened? They broke the mold,’” Sekafetz said.

This is the first year Chemeketa has offered a two-year robotics degree. The college hopes to increase enrollment in the robotics program from 10 this year to approximately 24 next year. Why would anyone be interested in the robotics program at Chemeketa? Sekafetz answered that question by stating, “It’s about how to solve things within certain confines. If you’re wanting to solve things and figure things out, if you’re very inquisitive, this is the program to be in. It’s all about being curious.”

According to Sekafetz, the local economy is growing because of Chemeketa’s robotics program.Our ultimate goal is to increase the technology knowledge for our local workers and companies, and to remain competitive in an ever changing economy,” Sekafetz said. “We are seeing big industries like Sanyo, moving to the area because of Chemeketa’s program. They see we have a workforce here all ready. We’re seeing more and more robots, and they’re augmenting the workforce, not replacing it.”

We’re just so excited. I’ll be up here for hours if I can. The reality is there is so much to learn with it that there’s not enough time right now,” Sekafetz said.

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