Jonas Diño July 16, 2003
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Phone: 650/604-5612 or 650/604-9000
Carnegie Mellon University-West Coast Campus, Moffett Field, Calif.
NASA, CARNEGIE MELLON INSPIRE FUTURE ROBOTICS ENGINEERS
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, visit:
For more information about the NASA Ames Information Sciences and Technology Division, visit:
For more information about the NASA Ames Equal Opportunity Programs Office, visit:
For more information about San Jose State University's MESA Engineering Program, visit:
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