Yonkers public school student Jillian Crockett enjoyed a robotics camp at Fordham University this summer for the most empowering reason.
“I didn’t think I could pull off a ‘boys’ thing,” said Crockett, 12, as she showed off a “taskbot” robot she designed and built with classmates Kyra McNanee and Nicollette Petnuch. “We sometimes had disagreements on how it was designed, but we ended up with something we all liked.”
“It was like a puzzle,” chimed in Petnuch.
The girls said their experience at the camp was more positive than the robotics lessons in their middle school. “[At school,] the boys ended up taking over the robot,” Crockett said. “Here, we got a chance to build things.”
The two-week technology camp was a collaboration between Fordham’s RETC—Center for Professional Development, Department of Computer and Information Sciences (CIS) and Yonkers public schools. It was funded, in part, by a $650,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant that was used to purchase the equipment. The purpose of the grant is to foster robotics research and education in the Bronx.
“The grant will be used in the local community to enhance math and science skills,” said Kraig DeMatteis, a technical and curriculum developer for RETC.
DeMatteis added that much of the grant will focus on helping K-12 educators integrate science probes, LEGO robotics and laptops into their curricula to encourage hands-on science and math learning.
This isn’t the first time Fordham offered a robotics curriculum to local students. RETC worked with children from the Bronx last summer, and plans are in underway to begin in-school programs this year in some South Bronx schools, DeMatteis said.
Theresa Lupo, senior professional developer at RETC, designed the camp’s curriculum.
“It gave the students an opportunity to experience technology that they may not have been exposed to in their schools,” Lupo said.
“Many of the students in the program really enjoy math, science and technology but may not know how their interests apply to college majors or careers,” she added. “Learning basic programming, visiting Fordham’s CIS robotics lab and planning, filming and editing their own videos allows them to try some of these different fields.”
Getting into the camp wasn’t easy. Students were required to submit an application, essay and reference letters from their teachers to the Yonkers Board of Education, Lupo said.
“Some of the students have shown great interest in, and enthusiasm about, real-world applications for robotics after visiting the CIS lab. We may have found a few CIS majors for Fordham’s class of 2017!” she said.
During the camp’s classroom portion, students worked with LEGO MINDSTORMS Education NXT robots. Once a week, they took day trips to places such as the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Gardens. On July 28, they saw a demonstration of sophisticated robots at Fordham’s Robotics and Computer Vision Laboratory.
The robots, which can be used outdoors and feature automated surveillance, are housed in the lab established in 2002 by Damian Lyons, Ph.D., associate professor of computer and information science and chair of the department; and Frank Hsu, Ph.D., Clavius Distinguished Professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The demonstration, given by graduate assistant Raymond Kram, showed students how the robots use laser, arm, distance and depth-perception technology to complete tasks. Students were able to man the computer that fed commands to the robots.
Lyons said the goal was to have the students interact with the robots and “the physical universe—something we do every day.”
“This way, students build an appreciation for more analytic thinking. That’s what we’re trying to encourage,” Lyons said. “Also, we can expose these kids to what computer science actually is. Because there are computers everywhere, kids think they are experts. This camp allows us to get into the notion of getting into an algorithm.”
Lyons emphasized that his department plans to continue exposing local students to robotics.
“This is a long term plan,” he said. “This grant has allowed us to get some really good equipment. There’s a fair amount of it, so we can have reasonably sized classes.
“There is a thought to do some teacher training in this area. We are looking into federal funding so that we can work more closely with teachers and have our graduate students work with them in the math, science and technology disciplines.”