NASA, Carnegie Mellon Inspire Future Robotics Engineers

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Jonas Dino
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Phone: 650/604-5612 or 650/604-9000
Lisa Jacinto
Carnegie Mellon University-West Coast Campus, Moffett Field, Calif.
Phone: 650/603-7019
July 16, 2003
As NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers journey toward the red planet, 36 high
school students are honing their engineering and programming skills during
an intensive, seven-week robotics course called 'RoboCamp-West.'
Sponsored by NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field Calif., and Carnegie
Mellon University, Pittsburgh, the summer robotics course is being held at
the university's west coast campus at NASA Research Park. During the course,
NASA engineers and Carnegie Mellon faculty are working with the students to
build and program sophisticated, three-wheeled, 'TrikeBot' robots that will
be fitted with sensors, including a video camera and infrared range finder.
"One of the ideas behind a summer with Carnegie Mellon, is to engage
students in understanding both the science and engineering challenges of
space exploration," said Daniel Clancy, acting director of NASA Ames'
Information Sciences and Technology Directorate. "The premise is that space
is cool, robots are cool and the combination of both is really cool. We
believe that robotics and space exploration is a way to motivate, challenge
and encourage students."
Each week, students are presented with a problem to solve. With guidance
from Carnegie Mellon instructors and student mentors, the students develop
individual solutions and program their robots. The students are tested each
Wednesday and are free to continue refining their programming for 'bragging
rights' in a contest at the end of the week.
"The students span the spectrum of experience with programming and robotics,
but all are very enthusiastic, easily motivated and love what they are
doing," said Mel Siegel, Carnegie Mellon senior research scientist and
RoboCamp-West instructor. "They keep us going. We are exhausted but very
happy at the end of the day."
Each student is given a custom kit of parts to build a robot, which includes
a video camera, infrared range finder, motors and custom-designed electrical
components integrated into a precision laser-cut rover frame. The robots are
controlled by an onboard personal digital assistant (PDA) that is wirelessly
linked to a laptop computer. Using JAVA software, the students can
pre-program the robot, control it manually or use a combination of both.
"The robots are fairly sophisticated and can perform relatively complex
autonomous tasks," said Khalid Al-Ali, senior Carnegie Mellon fellow and
RoboCamp-West instructor. "As a matter of fact, a robot from last year's
course was used by NASA Ames researchers to test parts of the programming
required for NASA's robotic missions to Mars."
The NASA Ames Equal Opportunity Programs Office provided scholarships for 20
minority students in the course. The scholarships supply each student with a
laptop computer, a PDA and a two-week training course in JAVA taught at San
Jose State University, San Jose, Calif.
"Latino and other minority students are severely under-represented in math,
science and technology careers. To address this problem, NASA Ames worked
with San Jose State University's MESA Engineering Program to recruit 20
mostly Latino students for the Carnegie Mellon RoboCamp," said Adriana
Cardenas, director of the Equal Opportunity Programs Office at NASA Ames.
"We hope this experience will inspire these students to pursue technical
careers and thus be able to partake in the opportunities that NASA offers."
"The scholarships opened the eyes of many of the students to the world of
programming and robotics," said Horacio Alfaro, director of San Jose State's
MESA Engineering Program. "By going through this experience, these students
can now consider pursuing a path they may not have considered prior to their
participation, opening doors that may have been closed in the past."
At the end of camp, the students will take their 'TrikeBots' home for
further exploration. Each robot is designed with extra ports so students can
easily add additional sensors for more advanced applications. Students can
receive additional help over the Internet. The scholarship recipients also
will take their PDAs and laptops home.
"NASA is investing in its future by working with prestigious universities
like Carnegie Mellon University to inspire and teach the next generation of
researchers and scientists," said Maylene Duenas, associate director for
strategic development in the Information Sciences and Technology directorate
at NASA Ames. "NASA is hoping that these students will become future NASA
researchers and engineers working on exploration projects using
computational science and robotics."
For more information about RoboCamp and Carnegie Mellon's west coast campus,
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For more information about the NASA Ames Information Sciences and Technology
Division, visit:
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For more information about the NASA Ames Equal Opportunity Programs Office,
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For more information about San Jose State University's MESA Engineering
Program, visit:
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Ron Baalke
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