U.Va. Systems Engineering Department Hosts Inaugural 'Systems Robotics Design Camp' for Local Middle School Students

July 24, 2007 -- At the University of Virginia, faculty and graduate students in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering are getting area middle school students excited about engineering with LEGOs®.

A far cry from the LEGOs of previous generations, the LEGO Mindstorms® robotics kits these students are working with as part of U.Va.’s first-ever “Systems Robotics Design Camp” can be built and programmed to follow lines, stop at intersections, work together and even learn. And during the camp’s two week-long sessions, July 16-20 and July 23-27, approximately 40 Charlottesville-, Albemarle- and Fredericksburg-area children have been building robots that are doing just that.

Each day, the kids are introduced to a classic systems engineering dilemma — determining the shortest path from point A to point B or finding a needle in a haystack — and its real-world applications. After learning to solve these problems themselves — by navigating a network of paths determined by cones and sweeping the “seafloor” for “shipwrecks” in the engineering school’s Darden Court, for example — the students then program their LEGO robots to work through the same problems individually and in a group system. Drawing inspiration from nature — from the complex group behaviors of ants finding food and bees seeking out nectar, for instance — the students learn how and why to develop a dynamic group system or “swarm” of robots to work together to complete a task.

“We’re trying to introduce these things at a level that’s fun — get them excited about engineering,” said Don Brown, W. S. Calcott Professor and chair of the systems and information engineering department. “We wanted to take a positive step to motivate these middle school students to be interested in exploring careers in engineering before they make the decision to avoid math and science.”

Throughout the week, the students — and their robots — will learn how to apply systems engineering and design problems to real-world situations. The students’ work will culminate each Friday at 2 p.m. in a final project, in which the robots will be timed as they traverse a network of “roads” in classroom 223 of Thornton Hall’s D wing.

Earlier in the afternoon, the children will experience lunch with “Tommy Jr.,” the engineering school’s Team Jefferson’s autonomous vehicle and entry in the DARPA Urban Challenge team, which will arrive at Engineers’ Way at 11:45 a.m.

Before viewing the final project presentations, the students’ parents are invited to attend a special session at 1 p.m. in Olsson Hall room 120 to learn how to ensure that their children will ultimately be prepared to enter engineering and science programs in college if they so choose. Associate Dean of SEAS Undergraduate Programs Paxton Marshall will lead the discussion.

“If there’s any way to get kids excited about engineering, it’s LEGOs,” said Reid Bailey, assistant professor of systems engineering at U.Va. “But we’re also educating the parents, getting their questions answered.

“The hope is we’ll get more kids interested in science and engineering. We want them to have the background they need to enter engineering and science programs, so that they can have the option to pursue those fields.”

The Systems Robotics Design Camp was made possible in part by contributions from U.Va. Engineering School Partners in Philanthropy Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

About the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science
Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University’s highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology. For more information, visit www.seas.virginia.edu.