There may not be a sure-fire strategy for generating enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) among young people, but there’s one technology that comes awfully close: robots. That’s why this year’s USA Science & Engineering Festival is introducing its first-ever "Robot Zoo" and inviting amateur robot-builders to show off their latest creations.
The admission-free Festival, which takes place April 25-27 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., is a non-profit educational event expected to house almost 1,000 exhibitors and draw more than 250,000 attendees [see video at left]. The founding sponsor is Lockheed Martin.
While last year’s Festival showcased many robots, almost all were built by commercial organizations like iRobot, Rethink Robotics, and Recon Robotics. Recalls Larry Bock, the event’s founder, "Afterwards, people came up to us and asked if they could show off their robots at the next Festival. So we said, ‘why not?’ Everybody loves robots. This year’s Zoo will be a place where students and hobbyists of all ages -- people who are passionate about building robots -- can show their stuff."
There are absolutely no requirements for attendees to exhibit their robots beyond simply signing up and displaying what they’ve built, regardless of how simple or technically advanced.
One person who has already signed up is Michelle Rosen, a 23-year-old graduate student in the Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University. Rosen and her colleagues will be bringing a few of their bio-inspired creations, including the Robobee [see video], an autonomous, insect-scale, flapping-wing robot about the size of a housefly that weighs just 60 mg. Because traditional manufacturing techniques couldn’t be used on such a small scale, the team built the robot layer by layer, and then folded it. Instead of motors, they used piezoelectric actuators (strips of material that bend and flex when voltage is applied) to enable the robot’s controlled, tethered flight.
"I personally am very passionate about STEM education," says Rosen, "and our advanced robots are the perfect way to show the public just how cool engineering can be."
Rosen also plans to bring a collection of terrestrial walking robots, including a model with a flexible backbone that moves like a centipede. There also will be examples of one of the latest technologies: robots that can be printed by 3D printers, which then fold themselves up and walk away.
Bock expects at least 50 robot builders to sign up and show their creations, enabling attendees to see models perhaps as mind-boggling as some of those displayed during the 2012 Festival – like the robotic fish, the robotic snake, and the robotic spider that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan test drove.
Robot zoos aren’t new. Evergreen Exhibitions sponsors a traveling robot zoo that next will be stationed at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Kalamazoo, MI, June 14-Aug. 31; the Cambridge (MA) Science Festival will feature a robot zoo on April 19, and the University of Texas-Pan American held one last year.
"There’s no connection between the other zoos and ours," says Bock. "Ours will be a national event, since this 2014 Festival will be the largest STEM education event of its kind in the U.S." He says the goal for the Robot Zoo "is to get young kids – predominantly K-12 students – excited about science and engineering in terms of their education, and possibly their careers."
Robotics can excite kids like nothing else, says Michael Gennert, director of the robotics engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). He says competitions like FIRST Robotics, which began back in 1989, "regularly attract tens of thousands of participants each year, about a third of whom are women, a demographic terribly underrepresented in science and engineering. So robotics are a way to get people fascinated by STEM, mainly because robots are cool."
When WPI’s robotics program began in 2007, Gennert recalls, about 8% of the students were women; that has since skyrocketed to approximately 33% today.
"Venues like this Robot Zoo are great at getting kids excited about STEM," he adds, "and the younger you get them excited, the more likely they are to stick with it."
Also appealing about robotics, Gennert says, is that there is a plethora of jobs in the field. "There is a prediction that almost 1 million jobs will be generated by robotic-related companies in the next five years," he says. "It’s a rapidly growing piece of the economy that is seeing huge investments."
He cites Amazon.com’s $775-million purchase in May 2012 of North Reading, MA-based Kiva Systems, a company that makes order-fulfillment systems that use mobile robots for warehouse automation. Also, last year Google bought eight robotics companies, most recently Waltham, MA-based Boston Dynamics, a robotics design company best known for the development of BigDog, a quadruped robot designed for the U.S. military.
"I can’t think of a better area to excite kids than one in which there is the prospect of future employment," says Gennert.
Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.
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