They came to see the robots, and the robots delivered.
Most of the teenage visitors had probably never heard the hit, “Mr. Roboto,” by the classic rock band Styx, but they surely understood the sentiment the song delivers.
“Thank you, Mr. Robot.” And “Thank you, future engineers” may have well been the reply.
On October 6, SoCal middle and high school STEM students paid tribute to their robot friends when they visited the USC Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) for the CAM STEM Spotlight.
The visitors included Society of Women Engineers (SWE) students and their teacher David Ramirez from the Lynwood Unified School District in Lynwood, Calif. As well, students from the Scorpions Robotics Club of Desert Junior and Senior High School in Edwards, Calif. led by guidance counselor Barry Conforti attended the facility’s open house.
The robotics club was also joined by their teachers and FIRST Tech Challenge robotics coaches. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge is an annual competition for students in grades 7-12 who work in teams with adult mentors to solve common problems using robots.
Ana Franco, an Edwards Air Force Base Squadron Lead and electrical engineer, has volunteered as FIRST Tech Challenge coach to the Scorpions Robotics Club for four seasons. Both of her children are club members, and her husband also serves as a coach.
“Seeing my children and other kids involved with STEM-related activities, I find that very good for them and their future because they’re learning about engineering, mechanics, software and even writing because the competition also deals with turning in an engineering notebook,” Franco said. “They document everything that they do at every practice.”
CAM Director SK Gupta found it rewarding to watch the students learn that engineers do exciting things. Gupta, a Smith International Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science at USC, worked closely with CAM Research Lab Manager Alec Kanyuck to plan the activities. Associate Professor Yong Chen of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering lent his 3-D printing expertise while demonstrating equipment to the visitors.
“There are three aspects that we pay a lot of attention to when we prepare for this event,” Gupta, who is a professor in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department, said. “Visually, it should be interesting and appealing, so that people can see something moving. Secondly, there should be some simple physics or math lesson that the students can relate to, some simple thing you can explain to them like Newton’s Law. They should be able to make some connection as to what they are learning and seeing. And the third aspect is safety.”
During the tour, USC Viterbi School of Engineering PhD students manned several stations that displayed various manufacturing technologies. Among the examples, students took interest in a 3-D printer creating metal tools and gears and a subtractive manufacturing robot that disassembled objects. A human-resembling Baxter® robot stacked colorful plastic toy rings and, on command, even “hugged” some of the students.
“The students were super happy and excited [when hugged by the robot],” said Sarah Al-Hussaini, a second-year PhD student in Computer Science who is advised by Gupta. “They had so many questions about the robot and the 3-D printer as well. I didn’t even know about 3-D printers when I was their age, so it is like science fiction is becoming a reality for them.”
The CAM STEM Spotlight was part of the STEM Spotlight on the USC Viterbi Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department, created by Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher (VAST) program that is managed by VAST Project Manager Katie Mills.