Lego robots have been enlisted in the effort to keep
the engineering-student pipeline in Texas full. Through its ROBOLAB
Institute, the University of Texas-Austin is working to get schoolkids
excited about engineering. Part of the university's Design,
Technology, and Engineering for America's Children (DTEACh) project,
hosts dozens of elementary school teachers for an eight-day workshop
introducing engineering design concepts through robotics.
Most of the teachers have no technical background and
have been reluctant to introduce technical subject matter to their
The institute is dedicated to changing that by training them to use
the ROBOLAB Team Building Kit in their classrooms. Essentially a special
Lego set that can be used to build programmable robots, the kit was
by Legos educational division, Tufts University, and National Instruments,
an Austin-based virtual instrumentation company. In addition to the purely
structural ones, some bricks in the kit have motors, blinking lights,
and temperature, touch, and light sensors. The robots are programmed
using National Instruments software called ROBOLAB. "ROBOLAB is
visually based and the teachers and students find it easy to master," says
Terry Duepner, a manufacturing test development engineer and institute
volunteer from the company.
A desktop computer is all that's needed to program a robot
to complete the kit projects. The most popular, Duepner says, involves
programming a robot to push 12 empty soda cans out of a circle made of
black electrical tape on the floor. The robot, working independently
of the computer and students, must do this without crossing the tape.
An elaborate computer program, written by the students, guides the robot.
"We're targeting the tinkerers, those who are good
with their hands," says Richard Crawford, a mechanical engineering
professor at the University of Texas-Austin. Crawford co-created DTEACh
in the early 90s with fellow Texas mechanical engineering professor
Kristin Wood and Marilyn Fowler, science coordinator for the Oak Ridge
The key to our success, says Crawford, is the pairing
of a teacher with a National Instruments engineer volunteer. "The in-class
program is a progressive one," says Duepner. "Each volunteer
is committed to a teacher for three years." Volunteers meet their
teachers on the first day of the institute. In the year after the institute
ends, they visit their teachers' classrooms periodically, to work with
the students on the kits while the teachers assist. Over the remaining
two years the roles reverse so that "by the end, volunteers are
like guest speakers and technical support," says Duepner.
Kathleen Crowe, a campus instructional technologist for
two elementary schools and former teacher, attended the institute in
1998. "You go in as a student and it's very humbling. But after
eight days you feel ready to bring it to your classes," she says.
Crowe adds that, unlike other workshops she's attended, the program
provides the materials for teachers to get started after they leave.
And the kids take to it immediately. "My students
were always ready to do robotics," says Crowe. "It's one of
those things they don't forget." Her students discovered the robots,
though fun to build, are not just toys. She says they once designed
a robot to clean waterways that was remarkably similar to one in the
world. The future of high tech depends on teachers like Crowe encouraging
their students to turn their ideas into robots and then into real machines
and, in the process, turn themselves into engineers.