Partner Spotlight: Robots
New robots take center stage, thanks to partners First Niagara,
Scientist Tim Gifford, and two anonymous foundations
When you enter Science Alley this fall, one of the first “staff members” you’ll see is humanoid, but not human, and utterly charming as well as educational and on the cutting-edge of robotics science.
Opening October 4, Robot Humanoid is among the Science Center’s newest permanent exhibits, sponsored by the First Niagara Bank Foundation. It features a 2-foot-tall robot programmed to interact with the public with software developed by local company Movia Robotics, a spinoff company from the University of Connecticut. Its many capabilities include groundbreaking work with children on the autism spectrum.
Some of the first people to experience the robot in action were grade-school children in this summer’s Robotics Vacation Camps. They got to see how a group of area teens helped to get the robot ready for the Robot Humanoid exhibition.
For six weeks this summer, a dozen 16- to 18-year-olds took part in a Teen Robotics paid employment program generously funded by two anonymous foundations. Under the guidance of staff scientists, as well as the Science Center’s new Scientist-in-Residence and Movia Robotics co-founder Tim Gifford, the teens learned to work together in teams to program several different types of robots to interact with Science Center visitors. “The robots provided a hands-on opportunity to work with the concepts and principles central to math and science,” Gifford said. Along the way, the teens honed 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communicating and working together to reach challenging goals.
Half of the Teen Robotics participants had prior robotics experience. The other half had solid public-presentation experience. Four of these, in fact, had been Teen Ambassadors for an earlier youth-development program at the Science Center. “We mixed all the teens up to put together three teams with a great range of diverse skills,” said Staff Scientist TJ McKenna. “Then we gave them the really hard task of creating a program the robots could do on the gallery floor to present to younger summer camp members and to the public.”
What they came up with wowed the audience – and their mentors. “I was really impressed by the level that these kids worked at,” said Gifford, who in addition to being CEO of Movia Robotics is Director of the Advanced Interactive Technology Center at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health Intervention and Prevention.
One of the groups programmed a robot to score a goal soccer-style. Another had a robot use its sensory abilities to navigate a maze, competing with a mouse using its sight and sense of smell for the same task. The third group programmed the Science Center’s new humanoid robot to dance. “The campers couldn’t stop talking about the robot presentations,” Science Center Camp Director Michael Ross said. “What the teens did was awe inspiring to our Grade 1-6 campers. The teen interns also helped the campers build their own robots, and it was a great experience for both groups.”
First Niagara Bank Foundation is sponsoring several more Robotics Camps for children throughout the year, and the Science Center continues to seek support for the teen robotics employment program. “The teens will be joining us throughout the year, coming in to present their programs to the public,” said Science Center Vice President of Programs Hank Gruner. “Some of them will be back next summer to work as counselors and mentors with middle-school students. By connecting teens that have a passion for science and technology with children in younger grades, we ignite sparks of interest among new generations of scientists and engineers.”
To personalize the identity of our new robot on permanent exhibition, First Niagara is sponsoring a Naming Contest in cooperation with Hearst Newspapers. The public is invited to suggest names based on the robot’s characteristics. Information about the contest can be found on the Robot Naming page of the Science Center website. In addition to receiving a one-year, four-person membership package, the winner will have the robot visit a classroom of his or her choice. The robot’s new name will be announced at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Robot Humanoid Exhibit at the Science Center on October 4.
The robot also will interact with the public at First Niagara Bank offices, where it will appear at three new branch openings in the coming months. The robot will serve as a high-tech brand ambassador for the Science Center as it delights customers. First Niagara customers also are invited to experience the Science Center at a highly discounted price on Customer Appreciation Day on Columbus Day, Monday, October 8.
You can see a video highlighting the Teen Robotics program on the Science Center’s website or YouTube. And visit the Robot yourself at the Science Center, where he (or she?) will be dancing for visitors in Science Alley for a long time to come.