Lincoln Laboratory is on a "ROLL"

Scientists help students learn the basics of robotics

As part of a new robotics initiative, Lincoln Laboratory has formed a group called Robotics Outreach at Lincoln Laboratory (ROLL) to facilitate educational outreach to students in robotics competitions; to help kids get excited about science, technology, engineering and math; and to foster the pride of building "high-tech" equipment.

The popularity of robotics has grown considerably, as evidenced by the increasing number of schools and students involved in robotics programs or competitions. This increase, of course, necessitates more volunteers and mentors—that's where ROLL steps in. ROLL members offer their time and engineering knowledge, serving as mentors for workshops, competitions, and classroom demonstrations.

Photo of Velez and student at robotics eventVelez mentors a student during ROLL's Weekend Robotics Workshop.

Lincoln Laboratory's ROLL group was conceived by four Laboratory staff members with a common interest in robotics and outreach. Jonathan Williams of the Air Defense Techniques Group helms the mentoring aspects of their new group. Williams says, "I was asked to organize mentors for a robotics workshop at Boston University. The response was so overwhelming that teams of mentors had to be scheduled in shifts. Mentoring for robotics was an eye-opening experience for all of us. Afterwards, we held a meeting to discuss how to better prepare for future events and ways to continue robotics outreach." This self-organized group formed ROLL, with Williams, Raquel Velez, Bryan Bonvallet, and Joe Usoff each managing a different aspect of the new group.

Bryan Bonvallet of the Biodefense Systems Group handles ROLL's outreach, visibility, and communication. He developed an internal wiki as an initial means to boost the group's membership. The wiki seems to have fulfilled its purpose, as there are now approximately 30 members in the group, ready to volunteer at a moment's notice.

Raquel "Rocky" Velez of the Advanced Systems Concepts Group is in charge of developing weekend robotics workshops for 9th and 10th graders. This workshop lets kids try out engineering in a full-immersion setting. Velez had such an opportunity when she was in high school, and it inspired her to choose science as a career.

The pilot workshop took place in July, focusing on intensive building and programming in a team environment and introduced the kids to the engineering design process. Culminating with robots competing on a variety of challenge courses, the workshop was such an overwhelming success that another was held in August. ROLL will continue to host weekend robotics workshops throughout the school year based on lessons learned from each workshop.

Photo of girls testing their robotStudents watch as their robot navigates a tabletop course in preparation for the FIRST Lego League competition.

Joe Usoff of the Aerospace Sensor Technology Group is coordinating three student teams ranging from 9- to 14-year-olds to compete in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Lego League robotics competition and a high-school student team to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge. Lego League teams design, build, and program a robot that must autonomously solve a series of challenges. Tech Challenge teams design, build, and program a robot that competes head-to-head against other robots in an arena. FIRST competitions are projected to engage 194,000 students in over 40 countries. Usoff says, "Although Lincoln Laboratory has volunteered and mentored for the Boston FIRST competitions, this will be the first time Lincoln Laboratory teams will participate."

ROLL's future is certain now that it is routinely fielding requests for mentors and demonstrations. ROLL was especially happy to help with a specific challenge in a Boston high school—building robots as part of an assistive technology project. Williams says, "I was blown away by how motivated these kids were, using technology to help people with disabilities. It wasn’t hard to find five more mentors interested in helping these kids."

The members of ROLL see their efforts eventually branching out to all age groups, playing a significant role in classroom enrichment opportunities, and eventually emphasizing human-robot interaction, but for now, they are happy to fulfill their goal of inspiring an interest in computer science, physics, and engineering. "We want to take advantage of every opportunity to bring engineering to as many people as possible," says Velez.

Posted November 2008

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