iRobotics Uses Robots to Get Local Youngsters Interested in STEM

An iRobotics member teaching a local youngster how to operate the robot.
iRobotics member Kurt Bowen teaches a local youngster how to operate a robot they brought to the event.

May 13, 2019

On April 1st, several local youngsters whose parents were participating in the Health Make-A-Thon got an up-close-and-personal introduction to robots courtesy of iRobotics, an Illinois RSO (Registered Student Organization) that seeks to spread its members’ passion for engineering and robotics to youth throughout the community. The children at the event not only watched these robots in action, but they even discovered some of the things the little machines can do firsthand when they got to hold the controllers and operate a couple themselves. The iRobotics students were hopeful that this early exposure to robotics might lead to an interest in STEM or even robotics down the road.

A young participant watches as a 3D printer manufactures a starfish.
A young participant watches as a 3D printer manufactures an octopus.

A 3-year-old youngster shows off the octopus the 3D printer made.

The iRobotics team brought a number of robots to show off. For instance, one team member, whose Custom 3D Printer team had built a 3D printer from scratch, brought it to the event. While the iRobotics folks shared about the numerous applications 3D printers have in our society, including bioengineering and the medical field, what the youngsters appreciated most was watching them print objects which they later got to play with.

The iRobotics team also brought their small, 3D-printed robot that is modeled off of PacMan, which was competing in a competition. Additionally, the group brought other robots such as battlebots (robots that compete in strategic games).

iRobotics outreach director Avani Patel shares why she and other members of the organization take time out of their busy schedules as to participate in outreach events: “We really want to expose kids to STEM and engineering and robotics and kinda just bring it out there as an opportunity.” She says that one of their goals is to encourage youngsters to take advantage of the numerous STEM programs in elementary schools and middle schools in the area, in hopes that maybe when they're in college they might still be involved with STEM…maybe even iRobotics.

Avani Patel, iRobotics outreach coordinator
Avani Patel, iRobotics outreach coordinator

Patel knows from personal experience the effectiveness of this type of early exposure. She indicates that when she was a kid, she participated in the First Robotics program, competing in First Lego League from middle school through high school. “And now I'm still doing it in college," she admits.

In fact, Patel, who is a junior majoring in bio-engineering, might still be involved with robotics once she graduates. She indicates that she would love to be involved in robotics in the medical field, such as designing surgical robots.

Might the kids at the Health Make-A-Thon outreach, who were quite young, actually retain anything? “Well, even if they don't retain anything that we say,” she acknowledges, “it kinda' is exposing them to this as something that you can do, and they'll remember it as a cool activity that they saw or something really interesting that they saw when they were younger. And maybe it's gonna spark an interest and make them want to get involved with it at their young age."

Luckily, one of the team's robots had four yellow balls which it would eject on command, which fascinated a local one-year-old at the event.

While the children at the event were quite young (the oldest was about to turn seven; her younger sister was three, and their little brother was only one), the fact that one of the robots had four yellow balls which it would eject on command was particularly beneficial, especially when it came to engaging the one-year-old.

“So, they may not be able to retain some of the things we're saying about engineering and science,” Patel adds, “but they're still going to find it to be a memorable experience."

Patel, who has had a lot of experience with outreach, has worked with kids this age back when she was in high school. In addition, iRobotics also participates in the Orpheum Children's Science Museum annual event, Robot Day, in October. For example, in October 2018, a number of iRobotics members who had 3D printed one-pound robots for a competition brought them to the event where a lot of the different organizations on campus provided different robotics-related activities. “So anyone from the communities could come in, and we made it a free day at the museum so they could come see our robots as well as go see all the exhibits at the museum," Patel explains.

Also helping out at the event was Eric Layne, a rising junior in Computer Engineering. The Vice President of iRobotics, Layne works with all of their teams to ensure the members have the help and experience they need to be successful. Regarding outreach, Layne says, " I love sharing my passion for robotics because it takes the ideas you learn in all yur years of school and applies them to something physical where you can see the concepts working in person."

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

For more on robotics, see the I-STEM articles:

More: K-6 Outreach, 2019

iRobotics member Eric Layne demonstrates that, when robots are involved, one is never too old to get down on the floor and play.