Robot buffs aim to teach their craft

High school team holds camps for un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By nau­reen Khan

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.”

ri­cardo B. Brazz­iell AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Mem­bers of the LASA ro­bot­ics team taught younger stu­dents how to build sim­ple Lego Mind­storm ro­bots this sum­mer.

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