Under a Desert Sun: Houghton Honors Students Build Biodiversity Robots

With the scorching Arizona rays overhead, two dozen Houghton College students and faculty members unload tents, backpacks, sleeping bags – and robots.

Their journey to the Sonoran Desert began earlier this year in the Science Honors program, Houghton’s innovative and highly selective opportunity where the top scientific minds of the freshman class gather for a first-year learning experience like no other. Over the course of the academic year, they combined biology, physics, and mathematics instruction with a hands-on learning component, culminating in the design and construction of semiautonomous robots to aid them in biodiversity studies. The students groups purchased the components, programmed, built, and tested their machines. They also outfitted their robots with different telemetry, including lidar (a remote sending method using lasers in a manner similar to radar), GPS programming, ultrasonic microphones and software, and more.

At the conclusion of the spring semester and during the college’s Mayterm session, the students headed to the desert – with robots in tow – to put their learning to the test. They obtained information about the vegetation, birds, and bats around Catalina State Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National monument, formed hypotheses about the Sonoran biodiversity, obtained several data sets, and analyzed their findings. For Kierstyn Gurney ’21, the challenging unpredictability of Science Honors was an enjoyable aspect: “Our question changed at least four times from the beginning of the spring semester to the end of Mayterm, and our rover needed constant repairs throughout testing it.”

For Ronald Lott ’21, the experience was “something that I will remember for a lifetime.” From small class sizes and top-tier professors spanning different departments, to working with students of various backgrounds, the tasks provided a collaborative experience that will help him as he pursues a medical degree.

“Science Honors was as much as tool as it was a class,” remarks Thomas Hallman ’21. “It was Science Honors that taught me [that] your level of humility defines the ‘width’ of your leadership. … And it was Science Honors that taught me [that] each member of a group is like a piece to a puzzle. At the end of the day, no matter the size of the piece, it is still just that: a necessary component of a complete puzzle.”