Robot buffs aim to teach their craft
High school team holds camps for underserved communities
Earlier this month, Thaddius Jackson, 11, and Sergio Perez, 10, skipped the weekend cartoons and instead hunched over a Lego set.
Brows furrowed in concentration, noses pressed to the instruction sheet, they checked each piece — then checked twice to make sure each was in its proper place and no direction was left un-followed. This was not a typical Lego set. Thaddius and Sergio were using Legos to build a Bumperbot, a miniature robot that they would later program to follow simple commands: move forward on its three wheels, change direction, detect objects in front of it, sneeze, laugh, talk and make other sounds.
“Can I program a robot to do my homework?” Sergio asked.
Sorry, no dice, their instructor, 16-year-old Michael Friedman, told him.
Thaddius and Sergio were participating in a free robotics camp offered by the Austin school district’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy robotics team. The camps are designed to spark a love of math, science and engineering among children in traditionally underserved communities.
With worries mounting that American students lack the skills to compete in a global economy and amid concerns over the low proportion of minorities in engineering fields, the academy’s robotics team hopes to help in reversing those trends.
“The LASA team is not going to solve all of
that, but it’s part of the bigger picture,” said Matthew Breston, a member of the robotics team’s board of directors. Breston, whose son is on the team, said, “The goal is to create an interest and a path for kids at a younger age.”
In June, the team hosted a similar camp at the Helping Hand Home for Children, a facility for abused and neglected children. On July 10, 10 members of the robotics team ran two 1½-hour sessions at the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center in East Austin, teaching 32 students in grades three through eight how to build simple Lego Mindstorm robots.
Both sessions of the camp, which was free to participants, were full.
“ It’s alive, it’s alive!” shrieked 9-year-old Trevor White as his robot jolted into motion. He crawled on his hands and knees to follow it as it rolled across the floor.
The robotics team entered the arena of competitive robotics in 1995. Since then, Purple Haze — as team members dubbed themselves, in homage to the Jimi Hendrix classic and the school colors — has routinely picked up trophies in the annual international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and national BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) ro- botics competitions.
Twenty-five to 30 core team members devote three hours after school Monday through Thursday, sometimes even Saturdays, to build complex robots. Those machines are designed to go toe-to-toe with robots built by their high school competitors around the globe. The team must raise $18,000 to $20,000 a year to fund its trips to competitions and pay for materials.
Tony Bertucci has coached the robotics team for 15 years and formerly taught science and technology at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which is housed on the LBJ High School campus in East Austin. He said that 90 to 95 percent of his students go on to college and that of those, most pursue engineering degrees.
And in defiance of national trends, half of his team is female, Bertucci said.
“It’s not just a bunch of geeks getting together and building a robot,” Bertucci said. “There’s huge aspects of it in design and engineering principles and technical writing and presentation. It gives that opportunity for the hands-on learning that you can never get in a pure academic environment.”
Purple Haze first began hosting robotics camps a few years ago as a fundraiser, charging $30 to $40 per person for kids to participate at the academy’s campus. But this year, Purple Haze students and parents wanted to extend their reach, said Cathy Cocco, executive director of the board.
They secured a $5,000 grant from 3M and $2,000 from IBM to cover the cost of mobile ro- bot kits and computers.
Cocco said that in late May and June she posted fliers in libraries, churches and other public gathering places in East Austin to target a demographic that might not otherwise be exposed to such programs. Families submitted registration forms by mail.
“Engineering programs generally around the country are underrepresented with women and minorities, and this is part of our effort to help fill the pipeline,” said Russell Bridges, a community affairs manager at 3M who helped secure the grant.
“These kids might not know that they are capable of building a robot. When they see kids not much older than them doing this, hopefully the light bulb goes on.”
Casey Chorens, a 16-year-old junior at the academy, said she didn’t know anything about robotics when she joined the team her freshman year but is now thinking about pursuing a biomedical engineering degree in college.
While helping Jonikqua Higgins, 11, build her robot last weekend, Casey said she hopes she can pass on her passion.
Margarita Morrel, who brought her 10-year-old son, John, to the camp, said: “At this age, you plant a seed and you hope the kids grow to value their education. It’s a starting point for them.”
Members of the LASA robotics team taught younger students how to build simple Lego Mindstorm robots this summer.