Four years ago, Hazen Eckert seized on what could have been a routine lecture and turned it into the most transformative experience of his college career.
Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, gave a robotics lecture during the Freshman Year Experience class that is required for all first-time students.
Afterward, Eckert contacted Spong to see whether there were any openings in his Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics and Systems (LARS).
“It was my good fortune to give this lecture with Hazen in attendance, as he turned out to be an indispensable part of our research team,” said Spong, holder of the Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair in Electrical Engineering and the Excellence in Education Chair.
Over the next four years, Eckert worked in LARS and with other research groups, including Sensing, Robotics, Vision, Controls and Estimation (SeRVICE), the Locomotor Control Systems Laboratory and the Human Language Technology Research Institute. He will graduate this week with his second bachelor’s degree from UT Dallas, this one a double major of computer science and computer engineering.
Eckert built his first computer when he was about 12 years old.
“I remember making a little robot with CDs for wheels,” he said. “It would detect obstacles and avoid them. As a home-schooled student, I had a lot of free time and was allowed to direct my own education so I explored things like programming and robotics.”
At the high school level, Eckert participated in Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology robotic team competitions. At the college level, he saw the dual major of computer science and computer engineering as an opportunity to learn computers from the ground up, from a simple transistor to sophisticated programming.
He thought Spong’s robotic presentation was a way to apply his aptitude and interest of computers and computer programming.
“Maybe I would’ve been a little more intimidated to ask for a lab position if I had known who I was asking, and how prominent he was in his field,” Eckert said.
“I’m very thankful that Dr. Spong took the time to give me an opportunity to work in his lab, and he has always been available to answer my questions. At that time four years ago, though, I just thought his research sounded cool. I was familiar with robotics from high school, so I thought I might have something to contribute.”
Contribute, Eckert did.
As a freshman who had experience with embedded Linux and Arduino microcontrollers, he helped a UTDesign team, composed of senior engineering students, build and program robotic chess pieces. Also as a freshman, he was integral in solving difficult technical issues in LARS, such as configuring a motion capture system to communicate with robots.
“Whenever I ask my grad students to collect experimental data, they always wait for Hazen to come in to help,” Spong said. “We are all in a panic about how we will survive without him.”
Eckert is one of the few undergraduate students who has been credited as a co-author on Spong’s publications. One of them, published last year in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Transactions on Control of Network Systems, describes how a group of up to six robots can autonomously move together in a formation.
“My role has been as the implementer of the sophisticated control equations,” Eckert said.
Spong said in his decades of teaching there may have been very few students whose aptitudes as an undergraduate have come close to Eckert’s.
“I sent Hazen to a professional society conference to learn about ROS (Robotic Operating System), and we are now using ROS in our experimental systems thanks to Hazen. We are certainly going to miss him,” he said.
When Eckert looks back, the lab work with graduate students kept him at UT Dallas and offered him his fondest memories.
“Working in the lab with Dean Spong and his students was one of my favorite parts of the last four years,” he said. “Especially when we would go to lunch, we often had these long discussions about current topics or economics or politics. It was a fun time, debating the merit of specific policies, of what a just society would do in a certain situation. One student was from Turkey and another India, so there was a wide representation of views in our discussions, and it was great.”
It wasn’t only the discussions that Eckert appreciated.
“Math was a necessary part of engineering; it wasn’t something that I valued in and of itself,” he said. “But interacting with those students — who are very good at math and who loved it — rubbed off on me so I now have a greater appreciation of math.”
Last fall, Eckert graduated from the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences with a degree in economics.
“I find the political side of economics very interesting,” he said. “And I did not think the additional degree would pull down my GPA.”
Eckert’s long-term plan includes earning a PhD in economics, for fun, and starting a company to use the computer science and computer engineering skills he learned at UT Dallas.
“I can’t imagine going through my undergraduate education without the lab with Dr. Spong’s students,” he said. “I recommend everyone try to get into a research lab where they are interested in what is going on and in working on these problems. I think it is really important to apply what you’re learning in class and contribute to something important.”