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On Campus


-By Robert Gardner

Lego robots have been enlisted in the effort to keep the engineering-student pipeline in Texas full. Through its ROBOLAB Summer 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, the institute 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 students. 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 developed by Lego‘s 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 Elementary School.

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 real 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.

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