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Neuro-LEGO Robotics program teaches engineering basics

Electrical and computer engineering grad student Pranit Samarth (left) and ECE senior Elliott Stam hold examples of the robots used at the Nuero-LEGO Robotics camps held at MU. Samarth coordinates the camps and after-school program. Stam is one of the instructors who helps get children interested in engineering through building and programming LEGO robots.

This semester, as many as 180 children will participate in the Neuro-LEGO Robotics camps held at Mizzou. Since they began in 2006, more than 600 elementary and middle school students have participated in the camps.

Satish Nair, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biological engineering, heads up the program. Nair said James Thompson, the dean of the College of Engineering, keeps emphasizing there will be a shortage of engineers in US, and this is a good way to encourage more kids to consider such careers.

Pranit Samarth, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student who works with Nair, coordinates the program. Samarth said the purpose of the camps is to get kids interested in math, science, and engineering.

“The age is something we really want to stress,” Samarth said. “It’s really important to get kids exposed to math and engineering at a young age.”

Children, ranging from second graders to ninth graders, build a robot using the LEGO NXT kits, learn the basics of how sensors work and how to program the robots. The sensors and their functions are compared to the senses of the human body. Touch, sound and light sensors are all introduced.

“Once we explain the parallels between robots and humans — the functionality — we hope it becomes obvious,” said Elliott Stam, a senor in electrical and computer engineering who works with the program. “There are parallels between wires and people’s nervous systems; the robot’s processor is like a brain; the light sensor is like eyes.”

Participants work together in pairs. Samarth said this works well, especially if one is interested in building and the other is interested in programming because together they will teach each other.

“Probably not all the kids understand everything but they all understand something,” Samarth said.

By the end of the camp, the students can program a LEGO robot to navigate a maze.

The two-day camps cost $125 per child. The money funds the camps and pays engineering students to be instructors, in addition to paying for food and insurance.

Nick Griswold, a senior biological engineering student, is another of the instructors.

“I really enjoy working with kids and spreading the knowledge I’ve gained. I hope to spark an interest in engineering so that there are more of us,” Griswold said.

The group also runs an afterschool program at Alpha Hart and West Boulevard Elementary schools. Griswold who is also an instructor at West Boulevard Elementary says that it is different than the two-day camps at Mizzou because most of the children at the camp had some experience with the LEGO kits.

“None of them have had any experience with the LEGO kits at the schools where at the camps some of them have,” Griswold said. “It’s a nice instructional aid to get them involved.”

“I like working with kids,” said Stam, who heads-up the Alpha Hart program. “It’s an age you can reach out to them. If we waited until they were older, they might not have the confidence that they can learn. But when they are young, they are eager to learn. It might make a difference in how they approach life.”

The kits for the camps and after school programs come from the original National Science Foundation grant that ran from 2005 to 2008. Nair headed the grant team.

That $1.6 million grant paid a stipend for engineering graduate and undergraduate students to work with teachers at mid-Missouri schools and bought 250 kits for 13 different schools. The short camps on campus began in 2006 and evolved into a way to sustain the concept of engaging students in engineering through LEGO robotics.

The grant program also sparked the beginning of an annual Robotics Design Challenge for elementary and middle school students. More than 200 children participated in the seventh free competition on April 14, 2012. That was the highest attendance since the program began.

The first camp held outside of Missouri took place in June 2012 in Omaha, Neb. It was held at the Salem Children’s Center at Salem Baptist Church. Nair partnered with Thelma Sims, director of the Salem Children’s Center, and Jack Turman Jr., professor and program director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center Division of Physical Therapy Education and Director of The Connections Project.

Nair, Samarth, Griswold and Stam ran the two-day camp. Samarth said the LEGO robots fascinated the children who participated.

“This is the first time we went out of Missouri,” Samarth said. “It was a good experience for them and for us… They wanted us to stay there and teach everyday.”

Samarth said he hopes by introducing students to the cool things math can do early on, the difficulty of math and science in classes will not discourage them from pursuing science and engineering careers.

“If you know math, math is not something to be scared of,” Samarth said. “I was really impressed with the program – I want to teach the kids the basics of math because that was something I really enjoyed in school.”