Students launch robotics outreach project

Students launch robotics outreach project

Nebraska student Colton Harper mentors students at Culler Middle School as part of a robotics club formed in January.
Courtesy photo
Nebraska student Colton Harper mentors students at Culler Middle School as part of a robotics club formed in January.

Computer science and engineering students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are using their computing skills to give back to the community.

The Computer Science and Engineering Ambassadors have formed a robotics club at Culler Middle School, introducing computing and engineering concepts to the next generation of students. The ambassadors group spends about two hours at the school every Tuesday, helping 10 to 20 sixth-graders build and program machinery.

"There are a few students who have had background in computing or programming, and I'm blown away by things they say," said Colton Harper, president of the CSE Ambassadors. "I definitely think starting something early helps you get into that computational-thinking mindset, and it just grows from there."

The club was funded by the Give Back Big grant the group received from the Center for Civic Engagement in November. The $1,000 grant was also matched by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and has provided the funds for the club's robotics kits.

Group and academic adviser Ann Koopmann helped connect the group with the Lincoln Learning Community last year. She said the students have been seriously committed to the project.

"They’re really rolling up their sleeves," Koopmann said. "They had to contact the Learning Community coordinator and talk about what the needs are. They had to get online and figure out what robotics projects would be best for this age group. They had to earn the grant. They’re thinking about how they sustain this so that when they leave it’s still going...and that’s impressive.”

During the first two months, the Culler students have spent most of their time following schematics to build simple chain-reaction machines, while four or five ambassadors supervise and assist as needed. Their goal is to get the students to understand physical concepts of the machines first and apply software concepts to them later. Eventually they'll design their own robots and take them to a showcase and a competition.

"They like the building. They think it’s challenging," Harper said. "They see the schematic and see that they're supposed to put the pieces on, but maybe they put them on the inside. Instead of saying, 'No, you need to put them on the outside,' we're trying to get them to picture why they need to put them on the outside. That's important. It's neat to see them put those pieces together."

The Nebraska students' goal is to foster that type of curiosity, especially with those underrepresented in computing.

"It's clear that there’s a gender gap in computing and STEM in general. We did some research, and what we found is that the interest is about the same in grade school all the way up to eighth grade or so, but in eighth grade there's a steep decline," Harper said. "We wanted to get into a middle school and show students who had an interest in robotics and technology that they're capable."

Ambassadors hope that the club will foster that interest through high school and beyond. The ambassadors also plan to establish similar programs in all Lincoln middle schools by spring 2018 and, possibly, to city high schools.

For more information about the Computer Science and Engineering Ambassadors program, including how to join the organization, send email to cse_ambassadors@unl.edu.