Robotics | Feature

Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em!

Robotics teams are catching on with students, igniting their passion for technology, engineering, and fever-pitched competition.

When high school teacher John Sperry invited some professional engineers and graduate students in the local Austin, TX area to his school to talk about career opportunities in science and technology, he included almost as an afterthought a designer of combat robots, those remote-controlled, armored machines built to do battle in head-to-head elimination tournaments.

Only a few students showed up for the event, Sperry recalls, but those who did went nuts over the robots.

"I had no idea it would have such an impact," he says, "but from that day on, those kids hounded me to find a robotics competition or something for them to do with robots."

At the time, Sperry was teaching civics and chemistry at Anderson High School in the Austin Independent School District, and he says he knew virtually nothing about student robotics competitions. But he did his research, put together an after-school program, and within a year the AHS robotics team was entered in its first event.

That was five years ago. Today his team is still competing, joined by throngs of others, as K-12-level competitive robotics is growing in popularity around the country and worldwide. According to one of the leading organizers of these events, FIRST--For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology--250,000 students from 56 countries take part in its competitions.

"Anyone who has ever been to a robotics competition has seen one of the reasons they're becoming so popular," says Ken Johnson, director of the popular FIRST Tech Challenge, a yearly event the organization puts on for high school students. FTC employs a sports model, pitting teams of up to 10 students who design, build, and program robots against each other.

"People are on the edge of their seats, standing up and cheering," Johnson says. "If you just looked at the crowd, you'd swear it was a state high school basketball championship."

FIRST is one of several organizers of student robotics competitions in the United States. Vex Robotics Design Systems hosts another popular series of events for high school students, as well as college-level competitions. The group says more than 2,600 teams from 20 countries participate in its 200-plus tournaments. BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology) Robotics, a nonprofit volunteer organization based in Dallas, hosts a national, six-week competition for middle school and high school students each fall. The KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid--meant to be taken literally by student robot designers) Institute for Practical Robotics in Norman, OK, puts on the Botball Educational Robotics Program, also for middle and high school students. And Lawrence Technological University, in Southfield, MI, hosts the annual Robofest competition for students in grades 5 to 12.

Also a nonprofit public charity, FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, an electric, two-wheeled "human transporter." Kamen, still active in the organization, established FIRST to get students interested in science, technology, and engineering, Johnson says, and to foster a cultural shift in K-12 education.

"Today, as it was 20 years ago, there's a tremendous amount of attention paid to, and celebration of, professional athletes and entertainers," Johnson says. "Yet the percentage of kids who play high school football, for example, and then go on to become professional football players is minuscule. But the percentage of kids who can participate in a FIRST competition and then go on to become engineers is virtually 100 percent. We don't expect all of them to become engineers, but all of them could if they wanted to.

"Dean felt that you could take some of the good things about entertainment and sports and put them into a format that would allow kids to be celebrated for these other types of achievements--activities that can really make a difference in the world."

At AHS, Kamen's vision is manifest in the blossoming of the robotics program, which is no longer just an after-school activity. Two years ago, the school added a four-year robotics track to its curriculum.

"We haven't been teaching robotics in the classroom long enough to have students ready for Robotics 4," Sperry says, "but we have students in Robotics 1 to 3, and next year we'll fill all four classes. It's not an outcome I would have predicted when we started the team, but robotics became a catalyst for getting kids excited about science, technology, engineering, and math."

Not Just for Fun and Games

When the robotics students at Anderson High School (AHS) in Austin, TX, aren't building competitive robots, they're working with a local physician and two University of Texas biomedical engineering students to develop knee braces for people suffering from osteoarthritis.

The project was the brainchild of Larry Kravitz, a physician with Austin Regional Clinic, a large, multispecialty health care group in central Texas. Kravitz's son, Isaac, is a student in the AHS robotics program. Kravitz pitched his idea to John Sperry, who runs the program. "He told me that he was open to novel projects," Kravitz says. "I looked at how amazing his students were at building things, and I suggested the knee brace."

About 13 million people in the US are struggling with osteoarthritis of the knee, Kravitz says, who got interested in knee-brace technology when he broke his own leg in 2007. For many of those people, a total knee replacement is not an option, he explains.

"They're either too young or too frail or a hundred other reasons. So they have to use braces. The currently available braces, known as off-loading braces, are too unwieldy and don't give them much relief from their pain. I really feel that we can come up with something better."

Kravitz has been working on the project with two students from the University of Texas at Austin's Department of Biomedical Engineering, Chet Murthy and Michael Hemati, for about a year. The AHS students joined in about six months ago. They're currently building a robotic knee simulator to test braces. "They're a robotics team," Kravitz says, "so we just let them do what they do."

To date, the project has produced one complete brace. "I would call our first iteration a learning experience," Kravitz says. "It did what it was supposed to do, but we decided that's not good enough. We're very excited to incorporate what we learned from that design into the new design we're working on."

The students--both high school and college--are also learning to use computer-aided design (CAD) software as part of the project. And to help with the design of the new brace, another parent of one of the robotics students, a radiologist, is allowing the students to study cross-sectional anatomy of the human leg via MRI. From that study, Kravitz says, the students will "CAD a leg" and use a new 3D printer to create a plastic model. And a patent lawyer is coming in to teach them how to write a patent for their invention.

Kravitz says he hopes to be able to "turn students loose to see if they can invent something else" every year.

Girl Power
Real-world mentors have, naturally, become an essential part of the K-12 robotics model. Julie Townsend, a robotics engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, became a mentor in 2007. Among other things, Townsend drives the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and works on prototype robots for future missions. She says mentors are essential to the strength of these programs, and including female engineers in the mix is important--to demonstrate to young girls that their participation is nothing out of the ordinary.

"Most of the girls are very uncomfortable when they start," Townsend says, "because they don't think they're supposed to be doing this. Having a real engineer there who is female shows them that they belong too."

Townsend mentors the Rock 'n' Roll Robots, one of the few all-girl robotics teams that compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge. Based in Southern California, the team was formed in 2007 and is sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America. This year's squad is made up of Girl Scouts in grades 9 to 12 but is also open to eighth-graders. All of the girls were either already members of the Girl Scouts or joined when they signed up for the team. Six members of the original team graduated last year, Townsend says. Five of those students went on to study engineering in college, and the sixth went into another technical field: cinematography.

"Most of them had never even considered engineering as a possible career before they joined the team," Townsend says.

Sixteen-year-old Erica Blanchard, the captain of the Rock 'n' Roll Robots and a student at Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles, says she has been taking machines apart as long as she can remember. The boys' teams don't intimidate her at all. "I think they're intimidated by us," she says. "We come in and we're confident and competent, and we just demolish."

Blanchard, on the team now for three years, learned about the Rock 'n' Roll Robots when she joined the Girl Scouts after getting out of middle school. She and her teammates divide up the various tasks--programming, design, construction, documentation, even PR and Web page maintenance. Her specialty is hardware design and building, but she says she could program if she had to. She has her sights sets on a career in biomedical engineering after high school, with an eye toward the design and manufacture of prosthetic limbs.

"What you should know if you're interested in this is that it's really not as hard as it looks," Blanchard says. "Going into it, you look at all these robots and you think, 'Oh my gosh, how could anyone build that?' But you're working with a team, which is really great, and then you get to take all this knowledge and apply it, which is especially cool."

Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em!

BATTLE-READY 'BOTS Members of the Girls Scouts-sponsored Rock 'n' Roll Robots squad work together to construct their machine.

Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em!

The finished product is ready for live action.

Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em!

It's game on in the final round of last spring's FIRST Championship, held in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Last year, the Rock 'n' Roll Robots won the prestigious FIRST Tech Challenge Inspire Award, which the organization considers to be its highest honor. "It recognizes us as a role-model FIRST team in our division," Townsend says. "We're very proud of that one."

Townsend is one of several NASA engineers mentoring K-12 robotics teams around the country. The agency encourages participation among its employees. It also provides robot-related educational materials for schools through its Robotics Alliance Project. The project's Web site intends to be a clearinghouse for K-12 robotics resources. Visitors will find links to various robotics curriculum sites, lists of robotics summer camps, schedules of robotics challenges, and guidance on starting a robotics program. The site also features numerous links to robotics-related Web sites and organizations, everything from the San Francisco Robotics Society of America to the Botball Educational Robotics home page.

Task Masters
The robots developed for these K-12 competitions actually resemble NASA's red-planet rovers. Short, stout, wheeled gizmos with extendable arms and grasping appendages, they're far more R2-D2 than C-3PO. The students build the robots from kits that include a Lego Mindstorms CPU (the robot's brain), which handles the communications, plus a set of plastic and metal gears, DC motors, wheels, and a bunch of sensors.

"The kit is basically a big Erector Set," Townsend says.

The student teams are also allowed to enhance their creations with things like sheet-metal cowling. And the whole enterprise is all tied together with computer software. The machines can be programmed using National Instruments' LabVIEW (Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Engineering Workbench), an icon-based programming language, or RobotC, which is a text-based language similar to C that was designed specifically for robots.

The robots are built and programmed to be able to accomplish some tasks on their own, and others while being manipulated by student-controlled remote controls. Teams rack up points when their robots complete a task.

"A robot is, by definition, a machine that does a task with some level of autonomy," Townsend says. "What our robots do is play games. The game is new every year, so the kids have to design a robot specifically to perform the tasks required in that game."

Townsend and her squad worked hard to get ready for an FTC event in December that required their robot to grab PVC batons out of a dispenser, and then transport them to a goal. The competition matched up the Rock 'n' Roll Robots with another team, joining forces to take on a pair of opponents. The random team-ups are meant to promote what FIRST calls "gracious professionalism."

"That's one of the things that make our competitions different from sports," says Caroline Moy, a 16-year-old senior at AHS and the president of the school's robotics team. "The way it's set up, you work with other teams. They're randomly selected, so you don't know who it's going to be. So if you were a jerk to a team in one round, but two rounds later you have to work with them, it makes things a little awkward."

Moy embodies the notion pushed by proponents that school robotics clubs are not just for the "math-and-sciency" types, as she puts it, among whom Moy does not count herself. Nevertheless, she has been on the AHS team for three years and has found that she is able to contribute in other ways, particularly in the role of spokesperson, talking to incoming freshmen, kids in summer camp, and reporters for local news channels. Other less-techie roles include managing the team Web site, raising funds, or designing a team "brand." But all the students, Moy included, still get their hands on the hardware and software.

"The kids are learning a lot of engineering fundamentals and a lot of math and science," Sperry says. "But they're also learning a lot of soft skills that can be very demanding and are likely to be part of their professional lives, but which aren't really addressed in most of the core classes in traditional programs. I'm talking about things like collaboration, project management, developing goals, and public speaking."

"Public speaking was not something that I expected I would be doing when I joined the robotics team," Moy says. "But no one else would volunteer, so I did, and I ended up enjoying it. We do a lot of presentations with professionals. I actually got to speak at [Austin-based technology company] National Instruments' national conference. I got to speak to all their employees about how awesome the robotics competitions are. How many high school seniors can say that?"

Although Moy doubts she'll end up studying engineering in college, she is taking AHS' new robotics classes. "It helps me do better on the team," she says. "Plus, it just helps me to think and understand more."

Robot Chic
When they were first offered, the AHS robotics courses attracted only 50 students, Sperry says. That number jumped to 150 the next year, and this year approximately 250 students are enrolled. That's roughly 10 percent of the school's student population. And these students don't all fit the stereotype of the robot-building geek. Some are Advanced Placement students; some are athletes. Most are just your average kids, Sperry says. And about a quarter of them are girls.

The program uses robotics as the context for teaching broader engineering content, Sperry says. Students learn the engineering design process and how to work with Dassault Systèmes' SolidWorks, a computer-aided design (CAD) program. They also all learn to use the Lego MindStorms NXT programmable robotics kit used by the robotics team. Halfway through the four-year program, the students pick an emphasis for their final two classes--electronics or independent research and design, the latter of which allows them to pursue self-directed projects.

In response to the growth of the program, in January 2010, AHS provided Sperry with a new facility built for robotics, including a full-size classroom with machine shop equipment and plenty of storage.

The Rock 'n' Roll Robots have also outgrown their sparse beginnings. The team worked out of Townsend's garage during their first year, but this year began sharing facilities at San Marino High School with the school's Firebird Robotics team. "That first year, the girls did all of their machining with a pair of bolt cutters and a Dremel tool," Townsend says. "Now we actually have access to a drill press and a band saw."

FIRST's Johnson observes that robotics instruction itself is expanding. "We're seeing a lot of teachers and administrators pulling together different elements that map the process of FTC and robots toward curriculum areas," he says. "I think that convergence is going to continue at an accelerated pace, because it's such a good tool in that context. Think about it. If you're a tech ed teacher or a science teacher and you really want to get kids to understand certain concepts and get interested, what better way than to have them build some robots around the concept you're trying to get across?"

Sperry agrees, and he says AHS' robotics activities have begun to influence other schools in the district to consider adding after-school robotics clubs of their own. "Right now I think it's fair to say that all of these programs are evolving," he says. "Nothing is static, and we're sharing everything we learn as we go along."

The program is also influencing student culture, Moy says. "I'll walk in the halls now and see people coming from basketball practice or wherever, and they'll say, 'Hey, aren't you on the robotics team?'" she says. "It's really nice to see the change from unknown after-school activity to something that gets people to notice you in school."