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June 14, 2013
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

Robots thrill, instill children

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. -The robots scurried across the floor. They moved their limbs. They displayed "intelligence." When activated by Slippery Rock University computer science professors and students, they clearly delighted and educated the young people participating.

SRU recently offered its first, free "Robots at The Rock" workshop for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Ten Slippery Area Middle School students occupied the University's Artificial Intelligence/Robotics Laboratory to work on Lego Mindstorms robots. The small, programmable robots combine Lego building with sensors and motors to provide an educational experience, like earlier generations working with motorized Erector Sets.

Sam Thangiah, SRU professor of computer science, taught the workshop to promote an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

"Middle school is the best place to start," he said. "The kids were really excited."

Children programmed the robots to compose music, run obstacles courses and wander around the classroom without bumping into anything. The laboratory utilizes a full array of advanced programming software, along with mobile robots and robotic arms.

Stacy Wise, Sean Brown and Daniel Arnett, computer science majors from North Versailles, Slippery Rock and Butler, and Quentin Panger, a mathematics major from Saxonburg, helped staff the workshop.

"These students were invaluable as they built the initial robot prototypes and helped the students with the programming projects," Thangiah said.

Thangiah said research indicates children learn better when they are integrated into a science field through hands-on experience, not just book learning. In-person robotics promotes analytical and logical reasoning skills, he said.

"It's like learning a language. If you're thinking you need to learn French, go to Paris and get integrated," he said.

Thangiah said he hoped to "get them hooked" and give students a much better understanding of computers, so that they will major in computer science or another STEM field.

Paul Zellem, a mathematics teacher and robotics coach at Slippery Rock Area Middle School, said the collaboration resulted from a visit by Thangiah to the school when he invited students to visit the University's robotics lab.

"Anytime teachers can get students excited about math, technology and engineering is a win for everyone," Zellem said. "Middle school students are especially appreciative of activities like this, because many of them have not yet decided what occupation they want to go into. This field trip might be something that influences their lives enough to determine their college major, or their future occupation. The world needs more scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Students who grow up with the current technology often find it easier to pick up on new ways to use it quicker than adults."

Zellem said students, who are members of the Slippery Rock Middle School Robotics Team, walked away with a new appreciation of technology.

"These students might just be the ones who discover a new way to use robots," he said. "Today's students are tomorrow's engineers. You never know what might spark their imagination."

"The children were very excited and positive," he said. "There were many comments about this day being the 'best field trip ever' and even the 'best day of school ever'. As we walked back to the middle school, the students were still talking excitedly about what they programmed their robot to accomplish."

SRU's computer science department and Kurt Schimmel, dean of the College of Business, Information and Social Sciences, sponsored the workshop. Other sessions are planned for the coming semesters.

SRU offers majors in computer science, computer science/bioinformatics, information systems and information technology, and minors in computer science, information systems and information technology.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.