On April 7, USC’s University Park Campus, typically home to industrious college students and researchers, was teeming with schoolchildren—and robots. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering hosted nearly 2,000 students from around Southern California for its most popular STEM outreach event of the year, the USC Viterbi Robotics Open House.
“Robots are great ambassadors for STEM,” said Professor Maja Matarić, USC Viterbi’s vice dean of research, who launched the Robotics Open House seven years ago. “It’s important to show young students how cool robotics can be and how it can be whatever they want to make it,” including applications in health, education, entertainment and autonomous driving.
Sponsored by USC Viterbi and organized by VAST, Viterbi Adopt-a-School Adopt-a-Teacher, the Robotics Open House welcomed school groups in the morning and families and organizations during the afternoon. With more than fifteen labs and activities across three buildings, the event gave kids a chance to see the cutting-edge research taking place on campus and learn why it’s important.
Popular stations included Assistant Professor Nora Ayanian’s aerial robots, which taught visitors about her research on multi-robot coordination. Meanwhile, in the lab of Professor Gaurav Sukhatme, chair of Department of Computer Science, graduate students displayed adaptive aquatic robots, which work together to map out temperature and algae distributions underwater.
“For a lot of us, we’ve been working with robots for so long, you start to forget how novel or strange certain things are,” said Stephanie Kemna, a Ph.D. student in Sukhatme’s lab.
During the lunch hour, children participated in interactive activities, including robot races in the USC Viterbi courtyard fountain and a robot dinosaur petting zoo. USC’s undergraduate VexU team, which participates in annual engineering competitions, also welcomed visitors to test-drive the robot they built and ask questions about studying engineering in college.
Visiting groups also watched the premiere of USC Viterbi’s short film, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Based on research from Matarić and the USC Viterbi Interaction lab, the film illustrates how socially assistive robots can help support children with autism.
“A major focus of the VAST program, and the Robotics Open House in particular, is to show students who are going through their STEM courses that engineering has tremendous social benefits,” said Katie Mills, VAST manager and organizer of the event.
Much of the technology on display, including drones and 3D printing, was also designed to show students how diverse the applications of robotics can be.
“When we started this event, robotics was still kind of mysterious and esoteric, and now it’s really part of our daily lives,” said Mills.
For the Rodriguez family, who came to the open house together after classes ended at the nearby 32nd Street School, robotics has been part of daily life for several years. Sisters Marcella and Michelle, 8 and 12 years old respectively, participate in USC’s Robotics and Coding Academy, which provides supplemental STEM education in local schools.
“I saw their enthusiasm when the Robotics program first came to 32nd Street School,” said their mother, Bertha Rodriguez. “Since then I’ve always encouraged them to attend more events and keep learning.”
In addition to supporting local schools through multiyear outreach partnerships, VAST provides lesson plans for teachers to use before and after the robotics field trip, with the goal of expanding the day’s activities into a long-term learning experience.
“We love for this to be an opportunity for teachers to extend the field trip into a real lesson about robotics and the social benefits,” said Mills.