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  • Education: Thanks to an Optical Sensor, a Fourth R: Robotics

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Hank Hogan,

Although still No. 1, the Lamesa Middle School Whirlwinds could be facing some competition. And that could be good news for the rest of the country.

Located in a small town about an hour’s drive south of Lubbock and hundreds of miles west of Dallas, Lamesa’s school district has limited resources. However, thanks to optical sensors, robotics and modern technology, some of its students are being introduced to scientific and engineering concepts, potentially launching them toward technical careers.

Late last year, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders at Lamesa received a visit from Richard Gale, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Under his direction and with the aid of a Mindstorms robotics kit from Lego International, the students learned how to do line following using an optical sensor. They accomplished the task after a few hours’ instruction.

In the process, they did more than have fun. They had to understand how a microprocessor works, comprehend the concept of an algorithm and tackle other aspects of the technology.

More scientists?

Texas Tech has helped sponsor competitions over the past few years where teams of students, under the guidance of college-age mentors, design and build robots to solve a problem presented in a game. Those robots can have up to three motors and four sensors, all under the control of computer software. One of the sensors responds to light in either an active, passive or differential mode.

With robots, students tackle problems and have fun with science and engineering. Courtesy of Richard Gale, Texas Tech University.

In the beginning, only a single school was involved in the program. A year later, that number had grown to 14. A survey of students showed that more exposure to the program resulted in increasingly positive attitudes toward science. “So, we think that it’s working,” Gale said.

Whether such efforts will result in more engineers and scientists remains to be seen. The program in Texas, for instance, has not run long enough to determine an uptick in enrollment in scientific or technical fields. However, studies to evaluate that are planned.

Other institutions have similar outreach programs. For example, Queen’s University Belfast helped hold an interactive robotics challenge for the first time late last year for students in Northern Ireland.

“We do hope that this event will lead to new students deciding to study science and engineering,” said Anatoly Zayats, an optics professor at Queen’s University. He noted that programs aimed at older children could have been responsible for a recent increase in local students studying the physical sciences.

Getting them young

In the meantime, even younger children are being introduced to some of the concepts. Lego Education this year debuted WeDo, a robotics system aimed at children as young as 8. There is no autonomous robot involved, but there is a program, a motor and some sensors.

EdElementary_MG2568.jpgAndy Bell, robotics education manager for Lego Education North America, said that there will be a competition associated with these simpler robots and noted a serious reason to target this age group. “A lot of the studies show that the decision about interest in science, math and technology is made at nine, ten or eleven years old, especially for women and some underrepresented minorities.”

Thus, enticing third-graders could be the key to producing the next crop of scientists and engineers. Reaching these kids can be a challenge, Bell noted, but technology can make it easier to do so through fun and games.

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