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Industry Partnerships: Schlumberger's Support for UH Robotics Team Benefits Students, Company

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By: 

Audrey Grayson

Back when Jim Mayes was attending the UH Cullen College of Engineering as an electrical and computer engineering major in the early 1980’s, robotics was barely on anyone’s radar.

Today, however, it’s difficult to avoid running into some type of robotic technology as you walk through the hallways of the electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department at the Cullen College. Between the laboratories filled with students tinkering with robotics, the workshop spaces devoted to teaching undergraduate students how to build circuits and embedded systems, and the very successful and ever-growing UH Robotics Team, it’s nearly impossible to avoid robotics if you’re spending any time inside of the Cullen College.

And this is precisely what Mayes was hoping for.

As an electrical engineering manager at Schlumberger, Mayes places a high premium on the ability to hire engineering graduates with real-world, hands-on experience. “What we do here at Schlumberger, particularly with well-logging systems, is precisely what students learn when they build robots. I noticed that when ECE students graduate from UH, they come right out of the gate with hands-on experience in embedded systems thanks to programs and activities the college offers, such as the robotics team.”

So, each year since 2006, Schlumberger has been the UH Robotics Teams’ number one supporter, providing anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 to the team annually.

Thanks to the support Schlumberger has provided to the team, UH Robotics has steadily grown larger and more successful each year. The team, which used to only be available to IEEE students, is now open to any students who wish to participate.

“These students are actually building and programming autonomous robots from the ground up,” explained John Glover, professor of electrical and computer engineering and advisor to the UH Robotics Team.

Under Glover’s mentorship, the robotics team at UH has taken home trophies from many IEEE Region 5 Robotics Competitions since 2002, even winning first place in two of them. This past April, the robotics team placed third out of 26 competing teams.

And thanks to Schlumberger’s support for the team, the cost of materials for the robots and travel to competitions is covered each year. Glover says this allows him to focus on two larger goals for the UH Robotics Team: expanding and continuing to be successful.

“When the University of Houston team shows up at the IEEE Robotics Competition each year, everyone there knows we’re going to do well,” Glover said. “That is in no small part due to the incredible support we’ve received from Schlumberger over the years. It has allowed us to expand and accept any and all students who are interested in robotics into our team. It also allowed us to focus our energy on improving our skills as a team each year rather than raising money to build the robots and compete in competitions.”

Mayes stressed that Schlumberger’s support for the team is in no way a one-way street. “Schlumberger directly benefits from supporting the UH Robotics Team. We love to hire UH graduates – they are very hands-on and ready for work in industry right out of the gate. They are self-starters who have already designed things on their own.”

In fact, Schlumberger currently employs 335 UH alumni across 18 different countries. To put that number into perspective, Schlumberger employs more graduates from the University of Houston than from any other Texas University. The number of UH grads working at Schlumberger is nearly equal to the combined number of graduates from the two largest Texas universities. “It’s been a very good symbiotic relationship,” Mayes said.

Although Schlumberger is notoriously selective in their hiring, Mayes says they have a certain level of trust in knowing they are hiring a highly-qualified engineer when they choose to hire from the pool of ECE graduates from the Cullen College. “UH doesn’t seem to waste time on theoretical learning. What they teach students at the Cullen College is actually very useful, and the activities they offer to students, such as the robotics team, are extremely practical and very applicable to the real world. That was my experience as a student at UH – everything I did and studied at the Cullen College was very applicable when I began working in industry – and that’s the same thing I’m seeing with students graduating from the college today.”

One of the unique components of an engineering education from the Cullen College is its proximity to Houston, the Energy Capital of the World. The world’s leading energy, medical, space and engineering companies are located here – a fact which the Cullen College constantly leverages to its advantage.

The Cullen College actively collaborates with industry, government and other academic institutions to expand research activities within the college and seek input on how the college’s curriculum can be improved in order to meet the needs of an ever-changing global landscape. In doing so, the college welcomes outside experts from industry, government and academia to act as advisory board members to each of the college’s departments, offering advice on the current and future needs of industry.

Mayes has served as an active member of the electrical and computer engineering industrial advisory board at the Cullen College for over a decade. “It has been very helpful to have a say in how the ECE curriculum should be shaped,” Mayes said. “The college has been very receptive to input from industry. They work with us and are very willing to adjust the curriculum to meet both our needs and the students’ needs.”

Recently, the University of Houston was named an “ambassador university” by Schlumberger, “which means that we seek to have greater presence and partnership – particularly in research – with the University of Houston,” Mayes said. “Schlumberger is very active at UH, and has been for years.”

As for the future of the UH Robotics Team, Glover says they have plans “to expand even more.”

According to Mayes, that would be the best possible thing that could happen. “I’ve watched the team expand and make excellent strides over the past few years. I’ve watched the transfer of knowledge carry over from year to year, with students teaching other students. That’s been very successful and the teams’ track record shows that.”

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