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Amazon Investment Powers Clark School Diversity Initiatives

Collaboration Supports Robotics Fellowships, Support for Underrepresented Groups in Engineering

By Rebecca Copeland

Students work in the Iribe Center

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

A new partnership between Amazon and UMD aims to strengthen diversity in engineering and technology while advancing the development of robotics and autonomy.

Amazon and the A. James Clark School of Engineering have announced a strategic collaboration to advance diversity along with robotics research and education. 

Known as the Amazon Lab126 Robotics and Diversity Initiative, it is the university’s first partnership with the Amazon research and development team that engineers high-profile consumer electronic devices including Amazon Echo, Fire tablets and Kindle e-readers, as well as the first Amazon–UMD investment to provide fellowships aimed at increasing diversity.

Lab 126 is committed to advancing robotics through both cutting-edge research and increasing the pipeline for underrepresented minority talent entering the field. Amazon’s $100,000 investment for the 2020-21 academic year includes funding for two Ph.D. fellowships in robotics, the Clark School’s Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering (CMSE), the expansion of a capstone course in autonomous robotics, and the University of Maryland’s chapters of the Black Engineers Society and the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers.

“We’re excited for this collaboration with the Clark School that will increase diversity in the field of engineering,” said Gregg Zehr, president of Amazon Lab126. “I so look forward to seeing what these young new inventors will build!”

Clark School’s corporate relations team and Amazon Lab126’s Kailyn Cage ’11, Ph.D.’18—who a earned doctorate in reliability engineering from the Clark School—helped to make the investment and the scholarships possible.

The Ph.D. fellowships are a first for the Maryland Robotics Center (MRC), a Clark School research and education unit within the Institute for Systems Research (ISR) that advances robotic systems and their underlying component technologies for a wide variety of applications. Its director, aerospace engineering and ISR Professor Derek Paley, has worked to expand financial support for robotics students and increase the number of women and underrepresented minority students studying in the field. 

“Amazon Lab126 has shown a tremendous commitment to supporting diversity through this partnership,” Paley said. “These fellowships will give deserving Ph.D. students the resources they need to to conduct state-of-the-art robotics research while completing their degrees.”

Led by Distinguished University Professor Dinesh Manocha, who has appointments in electrical and computer engineering, computer science and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, the fellowships will support research in automatic robotic navigation for crowded public settings, including mobile robotics, robot motion planning, computer vision, pedestrian tracking and machine learning.

Estefany Carrillo, a third-year aerospace engineering Ph.D. student, and Sara Honarvar, a second-year mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, are the first recipients of the fellowships. 

“As one of the few female Hispanic students pursuing an electrical engineering degree as an undergraduate and then a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering, I was well aware of the importance of someone like me succeeding,” Carrillo said. “I truly believe that increasing participation of people from diverse backgrounds in STEM fields can lead to innovative ideas that approach problems from different perspectives.”

Additionally, the partnership provides capstone course funding for the expansion of electrical and computer engineering Professor Gil Blankenship’s “Autonomous Robotics” class, which uses Amazon Echo devices to help build mobile companion robots that can understand simple voice commands. 

“Engineers are problem solvers and the builders of our modern world,” said Clark School Interim Dean Robert Briber. “Having diverse teams of engineers ensures the solutions we’re innovating, from smarter robots to stronger bridges and more responsive prosthetic limbs, serve our communities equally.” 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.