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Student Experiences

Sam Burden - Electrical Engineering

Sam's Project - Hierarchical Assembly for Self-Assembly Robots

Sam Burden

In my group, we engineer robots that self-assemble into any desired shape. We've created techniques to optimize arbitrary assembly processes, but the tools don't scale well. I propose to perform assembly hierarchically, thus making our previous work applicable at many more scales.

[In other words...]

Self-assembly is a fascinating field because it's what drives most processes from the cellular down to the atomic level. We're trying to understand what characteristics a system must have in order to self-assemble, what final products it can reasonably assemble into, how we can prevent and correct errors in that final assembly, and how we can optimize the process to take as little time as possible or generate the largest yield.

When, how, & why did you get involved in research?

I started doing research during the summer before my Freshman year through the NASA Summer Undergraduate Research Program. I found out about that opportunity through the NASA Space Grant Scholarship. Classes become much more compelling as a result of participating in research. With every new topic in class, you get to think about how you can apply it to your project, or how it gives you a better understanding of the difficult topics that underlie your research.

What advice would you give to other student?

The Electrical Engineering Department has a web site that lists current research projects open to undergraduates; there are a lot of groups actively seeking students with specific skill sets. You'll almost certainly be able to get credit for it, and often a stipend.

If there's a project you're really interested in, though, I would recommend emailing the professor and expressing that interest. In most cases, you can learn the skills necessary to contribute to the group. However, motivation and genuine interest in the project are difficult to learn, so professors love students who come with both.

Future Plans

I intend to go to graduate school and earn a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. I'm particularly interested in studying the design and control of useful, mass-market robots. After graduate school, I want to work in industry, ideally starting my own research-based company.


I would like to thank Professor Eric Klavins for his commitment to me over the past two years; his support underlies most of my successes here at UW.

Awards and Honors

  • Goldwater Nominee, 2007-2008
  • Research Fellow for Advanced Undergraduates, 2006-2007
  • Mary Gates Research Scholar, 2004-2005, 2005-2006


  • Undergraduate Research Symposium, 2005, 2006
  • Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research Conference, 2006


  • International Conference on Robotics and Automation '07 (pending review). Heterogeneous Leg Stiffness and Roll in Dynamic Running. Samuel Burden, Jonathan Clark, and Joel Weingarten
  • Robotics: Science and Systems '06. Optimal Rules for Programmed Stochastic Self-Assembly. Eric Klavins, Nils Napp, and Samuel Burden.
  • International Conference on Robotics and Automation '06. The Statistical Dynamics of Programmed Self-Assembly. Eric Klavins, Nils Napp, and Samuel Burden.
  • International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems '05. Programmable Parts: A Demonstration of the Grammatical Approach to Self-Assembly. J. Bishop, S. Burden, E. Klavins, R. Kreisberg, W. Malone, N. Napp, and T. Nguyen.