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Research and Innovation

Professor sees opportunities to advance robotics education at Miami University Regionals

Meenakshi Narayan, Ph.D. was recently named the James R. Myers Endowed Professor in the Department of Engineering Technology at Miami University Regionals.

Research and Innovation

Professor sees opportunities to advance robotics education at Miami University Regionals

Meenakshi Narayan

Most think of badminton as a game played with family and friends at summer picnics. In reality, it’s a sport that is highly technical, requiring motor coordination and the development of sophisticated racket movements.

It was also the first career choice of Meenakshi Narayan.

By the time she entered the 12th grade, Narayan, who was recently named the James R. Myers Endowed Professor in the Department of Engineering Technology at Miami University Regionals, had qualified to be a national-level player in her home country of India. But her father had other plans since there was no steady income in a sport like badminton.

“I realized he was right, and I had to take up some random field of study based on my grades in high school,” said Narayan. “I ended up enrolling for the bachelor’s program in electrical engineering with no thoughts or plans in mind.”

It wasn’t long before Narayan had a plan. Her interest in control theory, which is the basis for autonomous -- or robotic -- technology, landed her an internship with the Indian Space Research Organization in the Controls Group Division in Bangalore, India.  

“I worked on simulating different control algorithms to track the trajectories of two-wheeled mobile robots,” Narayan said. “Since my project was appreciated by ISRO, I got motivated to take up further study in this field.”

That further study happened at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she earned her master’s degree in electrical engineering and her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. It also led to her interest in using robotics in areas related to healthcare and to her career as an educator.

“I was able to identify and address gaps in the medical field, and how there is still a lot of scope for further improvement in various healthcare sectors, which I plan to address using my engineering skills and knowledge,” she said. “I was a teaching assistant for two years, and realized that I also enjoyed teaching students. That’s when I decided that I would continue my research and teaching in this field.”

The Opportunity to Grow a New Program

In only its second year, Miami University Regionals Robotics Engineering Technology program provides hands-on, collaborative experiences for students. The hub for the program is the new Engineering Technology Robotics Lab, which is located on Miami Regionals Middletown Campus. Completed in time for fall 2021 classes, the lab features industrial robot training carts and classroom computers equipped with simulation software available for student use.

Designed with Narayan’s interests in mind, Mert Bal, chair of the Department of Engineering Technology, said the lab will also serve as a studio for her to showcase her research on new applications of robotics in healthcare, and to train students on these systems/areas. Equipment for the labs was funded through grants provided by Miami’s Boldly Creative project as well as the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s RAPIDS grants.

“Access to advanced healthcare technology is limited in many developing countries and the lack of expert healthcare professionals is also a major concern for people living in remote areas with limited access to healthcare centers and hospitals. Developing cost-effective technology that can assist surgeons to perform remote operations without their physical presence, can significantly resolve this problem,” Narayan said. “I would like to design more courses related to biomedical robotics, so that I am able to build skilled manpower to support doctors with engineers for surgeries, rehabilitation, and regenerative medicine.”

Bal noted that the department will be able to offer certificate and industry-recognized credentials on industrial Robotics Systems in the laboratory space to help meet the growing demand for a skilled workforce needed in all aspects of today's manufacturing. 

Like all ENT programs at Miami Regionals, students interested in Robotics Systems can take classes in person or remotely. Although a challenge, Narayan said all it really takes is a bit of creativity and imagination on the part of the instructor. Many of the methods used in the classroom, she said, can be simulated in a virtual environment.

“Group discussions can be carried out both in the classroom and online. Through presentations, simulations, and interactive systems, we can efficiently explain to students the concepts,” Narayan said. “I don’t think there will be significant loss, as long as the instructor makes the sessions lively and participative and makes the course materials available to every student after class, so that they can follow the materials at their own pace.

“For lab sessions, Miami is already doing a great job in identifying affordable lab kits that students can purchase and practice on the lab exercises taught remotely,” she added. “I want to continue this trend and hope to design more labs of this nature.”

A Role Model for Women in Engineering

According to the American Association of University Women, women account for only 28 percent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math, and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. The gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering. Narayan, a member of Miami’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, hopes to change that at Miami Regionals.

“My first plan is to register for the Society of Women Engineers and explore conference events and fundraising opportunities that strive to increase retention rates of female students in engineering with scholarships and grants,” Narayan said. “I also plan to educate women about the various scholarship programs they can apply to as a means to further their education.”

She also plans to connect with industry partners to find internship and employment opportunities for all her students based on merit and performance.

“I would also like to reach out to women of all ages, veterans, homemakers, and the abused, who for whatever reasons, were denied access to education and restricted from following their engineering dreams,” Narayan said. “My long-term vision is to offer open-access distance learning degree programs for women or other underprivileged groups across the globe.”

Calling her hiring “quite a win” for Miami University Regionals, Bal said her background and expertise were in perfect alignment with Robotics and Robotics Engineering and the interdisciplinary nature of the ENT department. More than 90 applications were received for the position.

“What impressed us about Dr. Narayan -- who is only the second endowed professor in the Regionals history -- was her background in the area of surgical robots and medical applications of robotics systems. Robotics in healthcare is a very popular area that has tremendous application opportunities in the southwest Ohio region,” Bal said. “Dr. Narayan's contribution to these areas of robotics is something that definitely opens up new horizons for us and Miami Regionals in the near future, which our students and the community would greatly benefit from. She is not only the subject-matter expert we were looking for, but is the 'fresh blood' we need for growing our robotics and other ENT programs.”

“Miami’s focus on quality and personalized teaching; distance learning programs; and its flexibility to accommodate students from all age groups, backgrounds and special needs is rare in many of the universities that I came across,” said Narayan. “Having studied my bachelor’s and master’s in research-intensive universities, I was surprised to find Miami’s undergraduate programs to be almost on-par with some of the first-year graduate courses I took. Miami’s flexibility to design and offer courses that cater to industrial and research market needs, is exceptional. 

“The opportunity and freedom to grow a new robotics program during the initial stages of my career was exciting,” she continued. “The idea of us all sharing resources as one community felt like I would experience a second home at work.”