High school seniors engineer an experience in robotics

Fourteen high school seniors from around the country were charged with unleashing their creative energy in the development of robots. The Engineering Experience (E2) robotics course offered through the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs at MIT allows students to explore the link between software and hardware and how it applies to real world problems. The course was taught by Tom Pasquini, physics teacher at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire, and was supplemented by instruction from Sam Stambler, Josh Manore, and Theodore Tzanetos, all staff members in Lincoln Laboratory's Tactical Defense Systems Group.

E2 students engineer robotsInstructor Tom Pasquini assists a student with connections to improve his robot's performance.














The students were introduced to microcontroller programming, reading and generating analog signals, and using function libraries to process sophisticated input devices and generate electromechanical output. After controlling a simple LED light and processing the input signal from a Wii nunchuck in the first half of the week, students were tasked with designing and developing a mobile robot platform capable of autonomous operation.

The instructors felt it was important to base the program around real-world engineering hardware and software so that the students' skills could be directly applied later in college or the workplace. The students were encouraged to utilize the vast amount of online community-supported information and, in doing so, were further empowered to continue to work independently.

With only a few days of programming experience under their belt, students built everything from a motion-controlled arm to a color-controlled musical car to an artbot that generates robotic pen drawings. Though many projects needed fine-tuning, each student was able to reach a fully functional point in his or her project. When the students saw the same hardware they were using being used on an electric motorcycle built by MIT students, they realized that this experience had fashioned them into real engineers. These "new engineers" were surprised at what they accomplished in one week, proven by one student saying "I honestly didn't think that we could build (with help) an autonomous robot that follows light in a week, but we did! This has been the best week of my life!" Stambler added that "the program served as an excellent reminder that when students are engaged in the subject matter, enabled with the resources they need, and allowed to work on projects of their own design, they can accomplish astonishing projects."

E2 students engineer robotsSam Stambler helps a student fine-tine robotic programming.















As part of the program, the students received a robotics demonstration by Michael Boulet of the Sensor Technology and System Applications Group. The students also received tours of Lincoln Laboratory, MIT campus, the MIT Media Center, and Google, and saw many opportunities and possibilities for future career paths. Being placed in an engineer's work environment was an eye-opening experience to the students, as evidenced by one student who noted that he "learned that teamwork is required to get a machine working effectively and efficiently. One has to be able to think quickly should any problem arise. Overcoming adverse situations and effectively communicating strategies are obviously key characteristics of the people in this field."

Pasquini thought the E2 course was a great success, saying "Programs like this serve as an excellent opportunity for the Laboratory to encourage hands-on learning, self-sufficient problem-solving, and goal-oriented engineering. These approaches and values will help students become better scientists and engineers."

The Lincoln Laboratory Communications and Community Outreach Office is interested in finding Laboratory volunteers to serve as instructors for this course so that it can be offered in the future. Please contact Dave Granchelli if you would like to be involved in helping mentor students in this program.


Posted July 2013

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