LINCOLN — Sophomore Isaiah Narvaez often has told his family and friends that he someday wants to be an electrical engineer.
That may have changed a bit on Tuesday afternoon, after he watched and listened to Jim Moulton, a lead training and support manager for iRobot Corp. out of Bedford, Mass., describe the dozens of uses of the “310 SUGV,” an acronym for Small, Unmanned Ground Vehicle.
Narvaez strode to the stage inside the William M. Davies Career & Technical High School's Cafetorium, took the wireless Xbox control device from Moulton and began maneuvering the robot as his fellow 10th graders looked on with fascination.
“I thought it was cool,” Narvaez gushed after a few minutes with the 310. “I wasn't really that interested in robots before I saw this presentation, but now I'd actually like to learn more about how a robot like that functions. With the demonstration he showed us, I never realized all the things a robot can do.
“I want to go the M.I.T. to study electrical engineering, but now I think I may go into mechanical engineering, too,” he added. “That way I can learn more about this stuff. Like I said, it's interesting.”
On Tuesday, about 300 students attended this iRobot presentation, one held in conjunction with the United States Army and designed to emphasize the importance of following the “S.T.E.M.” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) ideology.
“This is being held to pique the interest of students who have a desire to further their education and careers within the engineering and technology fields,” stated U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Angelo Avanzato, who works closely with the Woonsocket Army Recruiting Station. “I'm a recruiter, but this has nothing to do with recruitment.
“This is to emphasize the importance of S.T.E.M.,” he continued. “It had faded out of the public school systems over the past decade or so, so the purpose of this is to revitalize S.T.E.M., and to present to students advanced technology through the use of state-of-the-art robots developed by iRobot.”
This program came to be when Engineering/Robotics teacher Al DiFazio visited Natick Laboratories in northeastern Massachusetts late last spring with about 12 other educators. Turns out, iRobot representatives also attended, and DiFazio ran into Avanzato.
“Natick Labs works on research and development for the military,” DiFazio offered. “I was so impressed, I asked him, 'Hey, would you come to our school and show the students how all this works?' and the sergeant said, 'Sure! Count us in!' It was a little late to bring them in last (school) year, so he called me and we set it up for now.
“This is the backbone of industry,” he added. “You've got to get the kids involved with this type of curriculum and technology so industry can flourish. We want to prepare students for the 21st Century, in terms of careers and jobs.
“When manufacturing and industry flourishes, it's because people are trained for it, and the economy becomes healthier.”
Back on Nov. 8, DiFazio brought his juniors to the assembly, and they learned all about the 310, why and how it moves – he called it “robotic applications” – through a video exhibited by Moulton.
The iRobot representative indicated his company builds robots for two main divisions, including “home” and “government/industry.”
“The home division produces robots for the home, such as floor treatments; they're called 'roomba' and 'scooba,'” Moulton explained. “One can vacuum, and one can wash hardwood floors. The government/industry side produces them for use by the military, police, first responders, etc.”
Stated Avanzato: “The 310 can take an impact, but it isn't indestructible. It's used to investigate potential IEDs, or bombs, and it can pull a wire or attach a charge to detonate the bomb. If it was to go off, however, the robot would be destroyed.
“Instead of a soldier going into dismantle an IED, we can send in a robot, so it can and does save lives.”
Moulton maintained the program is a result of the partnership between the New England Community Advisory Board and New England Army Recruiting Battalion.
Through his video, he told the assembly-goers the 310 weighs about 15 pounds and can reach a speed of 6.2 mph. It has a 360-degree rotating arm for gripping, pulling wires and the like, and has special “legs” so it can travel up and down stairs, hills, rocks, etc.
“It moves through an Xbox controller, and – obviously – the kids relate to that,” DiFazio grinned. “They purposely designed it that way because kids love this kind of thing, with them playing video games. This directly relates to our program, the things we're doing now. We're in the process of building robots with cameras, grippers, etc. in an ROV design. That just means remote-operated vehicle.
“Ours are much smaller than the 310, and they travel about half as fast, but the fundamentals are so similar,” he added. “We put all kinds of sensors on them – IR sensors, which means infra-red – and they can detect colors. It also helps the robots follow a line command or beam on an IR receiver.
“Since the first students experienced this presentation back on Nov. 8, it gave them more creative ideas; they came up with them on their own, and I was excited for them. This is exactly the kind of response I wanted.
“Now, students are changing their robots in terms of structure, durability, speed, versatility and agility, and their robots are able to perform more tasks via sensors, and in accordance with computer programming.”
DiFazio indicated he was amazed at the students' responses to the assembly, which was open to a variety of classes, including mathematics, science, automotive and electrical.
“We originally were only going to do this presentation one day, on Nov. 8, but we ended up getting such a positive response from our math, science, technology, electronic and math teachers – not to mention their students – we had to set up an additional day for these sessions,” he said. “I kind of had an idea it would turn out this way.
“Kids want to know why they have to learn something, and this justifies what we're teaching them about robots,” he continued. “With this, they can relate their studies to real-world applications. When they study mathematic computations to gear ratio, they can understand how it affects torque versus speed.
“I'm always telling the students about how critical it is to get the proper programming and construction for their robots. They work together in teams to develop a robot whereby the teams are broken into units of engineers who build, electricians to do the wiring and computer programmers to design, naturally, the programs. There are also project managers who oversee those teams.”
Avanzato mentioned about 550 students took part in the demonstrations, and that he and Moulton have set up similar sessions at Lincoln and Woonsocket high schools over the next two months.
“I thought the presentations went rather well,” Moulton stated. “There are certain kids who are much more enthusiastic, and into it, than others. Usually, there are a handful of students who ask most of the questions, but I think we sparked more interest. Certainly, some kids see this presentation, and it really opens their eyes to it.
“This is all about captivating the students by applying a lot of scientific and mathematical theory into real-life applications,” he added. “Here, they witnessed home applications as well as military applications. This will only help them in their future endeavors.”