Name: Amiel Orbach
Hometown: Stamford, Conn.
Major: Electrical and Systems Engineering, pursuing an accelerated master’s degree in robotics
Activities: Tau Beta Pi, GRASP Lab, Eta Kappa Nu, Penn Assistive Devices and Prosthetic Technologies (ADAPT), Community School Student Partnerships, Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP), CIS 520 TA
Let's start with your accelerated master’s degree in robotics—tell us about that.
In the Engineering school, they have these master’s programs that allow you to double count some courses between undergraduate and graduate [levels]. The master's degree itself is 10 course units, so I can take three to overlap in undergrad. It's basically an encouragement for people to get a master's degree—I'll be here for another year getting a master’s, while most people spread it out over two years. Robotics isn't its own department: It's cohosted between Electrical and Systems Engineering, Computer and Information Sciences, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Robotics is a lot of things: machine learning; artificial intelligence; control theory, where you design a controller for a given robotic system; machine vision, where you process a camera or video feed to understand the environment surrounding it; and kinematics, where you try to figure out how a robotic arm or kinematic device going to move if you apply different forces and torques to the joints. Ultimately, it's sort of just a hybrid between a lot of different fields. I've taken a lot of courses in machine learning and control theory, and I'm just starting to take kinematics and the other ones this semester.
My classes mostly consist of master’s and Ph.D. students at this point, because I’m taking a lot of graduate–level classes, but there are definitely some undergrads. They’ll probably be juniors or seniors, unless it’s some crazy genius who invented a new language or something, but most people are either upperclassmen or graduate students.
How did you get into robotics in the first place?
I've always loved building things. The stereotype is playing with Legos as a kid, which is obviously true, and then, in high school, I did a summer program where, for six weeks, we designed and built projects and robots with little microcontrollers, just playing around, getting some experience with building robots. I really liked it and kind of decided there that this is what I want to do.
As an outsider, robotics can seem like a lot of lab work and kind of distant. How are you trying to be active on the ground with your robotics work through your extracurriculars?
I'm in a club called ADAPT where you take medical problems that people have and try to make low–cost solutions to them. A lot of the time, the work is for individuals—people in the Philadelphia community who will request individual solutions. We're talking to the [Overbrook] School for the Blind, for example. Obviously, medical devices are really expensive, and not many people can afford them, as well as being kind of outdated. For instance, the first project we did concerned how we teach Braille, and we basically made a device with a microcontroller where you could put in the three by two grid and press the buttons to help blind kids learn Braille. Right now, we're working on a system to motorize a wheelchair, because motorized wheelchairs are pretty expensive, so we're trying to have a cost–effective solution.
Also, with machine vision, we're focusing on having a video feed of someone breathing and being able to diagnose if their breathing is too shallow without having to go through a whole diagnostic procedure. It's not necessarily that the solutions don't exist, they're just solutions that can cost thousands of dollars and we're trying to make them cheaper.
I also tutor in West Philadelphia for a couple public and charter schools—English, math, and science. These clubs basically have Penn students go into schools that aren't doing too well and help kids who are struggling, making teachers' jobs easier. This semester, I'm hoping to bring some programming tutoring to West Philadelphia. It's tough because a lot of schools don't have the resources for a full robotics lab—you know, some schools might have a 3D printer or something, and those are starting to become more common as they get cheaper, but many schools still don’t have that. Programming works in that as long as you have access to a computer or electronic device, you can do it too—that’s what’s making it become more popular than hands–on lab stuff.
Regarding your involvement in the OCP and Penn Hillel, how has the Jewish community contributed to your experience here at Penn?
I always grew up with it, so it was nice to have a community to look into when I got here. I already knew a couple of people from high school, so it's really nice to go in there and already be familiar with the rituals and the community. It's also a good way to get to know people, especially coming into college when you don't really know anyone and you're sort of just struggling to fit in, but once you get here and you already have somewhere to plug into, it's great.
How have you enjoyed your experience as a CIS TA?
I've always enjoyed teaching, and I'm a TA for CIS 520. In high school, I taught summer school and a youth group for my synagogue at home, and now here. I started TAing last semester, and it was obviously mostly in–person, but there were a bunch of students who were stuck in China or India with visa problems so we had to have a remote recitation for the people there that was literally back–to–back with our in–person recitation. A lot of the engineering graduate classes are largely Chinese and Indian students, and last semester probably about 45 of them were stuck outside of the US, so I had to teach a remote recitation class.
The contrast was ridiculous. In the in–person recitation, you’re having a conversation with people the whole time and they’re engaging with each other, but on Zoom it’s totally silent and basically just a monologue. In COVID–19, it was just hard to meet people through a screen—they’d have their camera off at all times and you’d just get to see their Zoom name. In fairness, when I'm in virtual class I often have my camera off the whole time too, but it's annoying from a teacher's perspective to not be able to have the discussion that you usually get with in–person classes.
What’s next for you after Penn?
I love robotics and would certainly love to do it as a career, but I haven't really thought about it past next year. If I could be building robots, though, I'd love that. At the end of the day, I just enjoy being here, hanging out with friends, all that—it’s fun.
Last song you listened to? I prefer soundtracks rather than individual songs, usually musicals and stuff—probably Hamilton. I never did theater, but I just enjoy the songs.
Death row meal? Can I ask for something made by a friend who could smuggle me a lockpick and a shiv? Or a really, really, big cake that I could smuggle myself out of, like Princess Peach getting stuffed in the big birthday cake in Super Mario.
Favorite movie? I'm a big MCU, Star Wars, and Harry Potter fan. I love fantasy—my favorite series has to be Harry Potter.
There are two types of people at Penn…
In my experience, those who know what it's like to run to DRL first thing in the morning for math recitation, and those who don't.
And you are?
I don't know how much it applies to people outside of studying STEM, but I've had several semesters in a row where first thing in the morning I had to make the 15–minute walk down to DRL.