iRobotics Engages Kids in the Sport to Pique Interest in Engineering

iRobotics member judges a robotics competition.
iRobotics member judges an event during the recent practice robotics competition.

December 16, 2013

Is robotics a sport? According to the internet, it meets all of the criteria: team building, competition, awards, and the possibility of moving to a higher tournament or competition, and, thus, should be classified as a "sport of the mind." But no matter how it's classified, if a local event has something to do with robotics, it's a pretty sure thing that some students from iRobotics will show up.

While a few of iRobotics' 40 committed core members are from outside engineering, most are from Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. But they all have one thing in common—their love of robotics. The purpose of the organization is simple: to compete in robotics and to share their love of the sport (?) with youngsters via outreach by judging competitions; doing demonstrations in local schools; and helping start, mentor, or prepare teams for competition.

One of the draws for members is competing themselves. iRobotics is primarily involved in two competitions: three teams compete in the AMD-sponsored Jerry Sanders Design Competition, held during Engineering Open House every year. Also, iRobotics competes two VEX robots every year in the VEX World Championship held in California every year in April.

iRobotics member judges an event during the practice tournament the organization held in November.
iRobotics judge (2nd from the left) watches as a team competes during the practice tournament the organization held in November.

So these robots should practically be Transformers, right, as teams get all the kinks ironed out and just keep making them better from year to year? Not for VEX. The game changes every year, so at the end of the competition in April, they announce what the new competition will be for the following year; thus, the teams constantly have to redesign.

For the Jerry Sanders competition, the theme of the competition changes every two years, thus requiring a new robot every other year; but iRobotics Outreach Coordinator Arsalan Aslam says they never want to rest on their laurels from the previous year: "You always want to improve your robot; you never want to settle with what you have."

iRobotics member judging during the November 16th practice competition.
iRobotics member judges an event during the recent practice robotics competition.

Another just-as-important emphasis of iRobotics is outreach, and a large part of that is helping/ mentoring local robotics teams. For example, earlier in the semester, iRobotics held design and software seminars to help local FIRST Lego League teams get started on their robots. Then they organized and ran a practice tournament this past November to help teams prepare for the real thing. This faux competition gave teams a chance to test their robots and practice their research presentation and team-building challenge. This was also an opportunity for teams to try out what they had learned at the seminars and hopefully improve their design in time for the December regional qualifiers.

Members of iRobotics also serve as judges for local competitions. For example, the judges for the practice tournament were from iRobotics. And during the 2013 Illinois Science Olympiad tournament last spring, iRobotics members judged the Robot Arm event.

Regarding their commitment to mentoring local teams, one iRobotics member, Becca Nothof, is so passionate about it, that she even helped start an actual course for which Illinois students receive credit, ENG 298 LRM (Lego Robotics Mentoring), which she teaches.

Competitor waits his turn during the recent practice competition held by iRobotics.
Competitor waits his turn during the recent practice competition held by iRobotics.

"The summer after my freshman year," says Nothof, "the president of iRobotics at the time said, 'You should get this class going; we want more people out mentoring and helping these Lego league teams.' So we started the class."

Her objective? In addition to recruiting kids into STEM, she hopes to "pay forward" all that she has received by being involved in robotics herself.

"To get them into STEM (science and technology), to get them more involved. And I know that when I did it in high school, it was a really good experience; I learned a lot from it that you won't learn in school. So I wanted to give that back. I figured, 'What better way than to mentor and help other kids be able to participate in these programs?'"

Aslam agrees that the goal of their outreach is recruiting. He indicates that he and other iRobotics members want to share with local youngsters, not only their passion for robotics, but their love of engineering. Their goal is "Helping other people get to the point where we are right now," admits Aslam. "We're thankful to be at such a prestigious engineering university. So we would like to inspire other students to follow in our footsteps. When we leave somebody has to be in our place."

iRobotics Outreach Coordiator Arsalam Aslaam (left), and fellow iRobtoics member, who served as a judge during the recent practice competition in November.
iRobotics Outreach Coordiator Arsalam Aslam (left), and fellow iRobotics member, who served as a judge during the recent practice competition in November.

As part of their recruiting strategy, Aslam indicates that they routinely encourage elementary and middle school students they meet during outreach events to continue their involvement in robotics. For example, at the end of most events, they plant a seed, saying something like, "Hey, have you heard of FLL?" (First Lego League is FIRST's competition for elementary and middle school students.) "So we always ask them if they are involved in that, and if they need help in starting up a team or not."

So far, iRobotics has done outreach events at Franklin and Jefferson Middle Schools, Mahomet-Seymour Jr. High, and Dr. Howard Elementary School. In addition, members of iRobotics helped out at the 2013 4-H Robotics Competition held at the ARC, where they demonstrated for up-and-coming robotics devotees what the big boys (and girls) could do. iRobotics members also did a robot demonstration for ISU's 2012 Family Science Day.

A fairly new organization, iRobotics was created in 2012 by members of the Engineering Freshmen Committee (part of the Engineering Council) who had a team for the Jerry Sanders competition. Once they finished their freshman year, they wanted to continue with robotics, but since there was nothing exactly like what they wanted on campus, they decided to create iRobotics.

iRobotics Outreach Coordinator Arsalan Aslam watches a team go through a practice run at the practice tournament he organized.
iRobotics Outreach Coordinator Arsalan Aslam watches a team go through a practice run at the practice tournament he organized.

Aslam indicates that as a member of his class's Engineering Freshman Committee team, the newly-formed iRobotics club helped them out a lot. So once their freshman year was done, he and his cohorts decided, "Yeah, this is really interesting; we'd like to continue."

In addition, iRobotics recently merged with IRO (Illini Robotics Organization), which has done a lot of work with FIRST including, FLO and FRC outreach.

So how did iRobotics members, like Aslam and Nothof, get interested in robotics?

Aslam, currently a junior in Mechanical Engineering, got into robotics as a sophomore in high school. Based on the sport's impact in his own life, he wants to expose youngsters to robotics in hopes that this spurs an interest in engineering in their lives.

"Growing up, I was lucky to quickly realize that I wanted to do something with engineering. When I got to high school, 'Oh, robotics sounds cool! I'm gonna' try it out.' So my goal is to just get other kids excited and headed down that direction as well."

Nothof has been involved with robotics for eight years, ever since she was a freshman in high school. She reports that when she first arrived at Illinois as a freshman, she made a beeline to the iRobotics table on quad day, and has been involved ever since, primarily on the connection between college robotics and high school and middle school teams. In addition to the ENG 398 course, she helped recruit and start the community-wide high school team, which she has been mentoring ever since.

Majoring in civil engineering, does she, like Aslam, attribute her choosing a career in engineering to participation in robotics? Nope.

Becca Nothof
Becca Nothof

"I went to a camp after my sixth grade year; it was here, actually. That's how I knew I wanted to go here. It was Girls' Adventures in Math, Engineering, and Science. So I really enjoyed that. And then I just kind of looked stuff up—what major that would be.

The project that got her hooked? Building a water tower that could withstand an earthquake. "So we had to make a tower, and that's what made me want to do that. I think we did another project, but I don't remember it, because it wasn't what I wanted to do."

While participating in robotics didn't foster her initial interest in engineering, Nothof acknowledges that participating in the sport has given her skills she has found useful in engineering. "Instead of knowing that I wanted to go into engineering from being in robotics, I got experience in working with people. Public speaking was a big thing. I didn't realize until I got here how big of a deal it was for engineers to be able to do public speaking, because we did it so much in robotics. I was part of the team that had to do presentations so that was a big help."

Nothof believes the public speaking aspect of robotics is of benefit to the iRobotics members who participate in outreach: "We do a lot of outreach to middle schools...and I think that helps to be able to talk to kids at a younger age and to show them how to do things. Even though you're showing them a simpler product, you still have to talk to your audience, so I think that helps the members going out and doing that kind of outreach."

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 6-8 Outreach, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, FIRST, K-6 Outreach, MechSE, 2013

For more on robotics, see the I-STEM article: 4-H Robotics: Working to Make a STEM Career Down the Line Automatic

Becca Nothof (left) and a team discuss the success of their robot at the practice competition.
During the recent practice competition, Becca Nothof (left) chats with with one of the teams about the success of their robot.