The Catholic University of America

March 26, 2010

Sixth-Graders Get inside Look at Engineering from Robot Maker

  Charles Nguyen shows off an early robot that was programmed to say, “Hello.”

More than 30 middle- and high-school students from Northern Virginia got a hands-on lesson in robotics during a visit today to Catholic University’s School of Engineering.

Who better to explain what CUA students are doing in the field of robotics than the dean himself, Charles Nguyen, who demonstrated how robots work. Robotics is the research specialty of Nguyen, an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow.

“This is an effort of our school to help improve STEM education in the United States by inspiring students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he said.

Visitors included members of the sixth-grade compacted math class and the after-school robotics club at Poe Middle School in Annandale, Va.  Compacted math is an accelerated program that is offered to select sixth-graders in Fairfax County, Va.

Joining them were sophomores from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a Fairfax County magnet school that has been named a Department of Education Blue Ribbon School. The high-schoolers are members of Thomas Jefferson’s Botball Club who mentor the middle-school math students. Botball is an annual student robotics competition.

“Can you be an engineer?” Nguyen asked the students in his introduction. He said the answer was an emphatic yes if they like math and science and want to apply what they learn to making something useful.

CUA students Theresa Murray and Marvin Gunawan share their senior-design project with students from a middle school and a high school in Virginia.

He asked the students to imagine a world without TVs, DVDs, CDs, cars or cell phones. “I would not want to live in that kind of environment,” he said. The students agreed. “Everything you see,” he told them, “has been created one way or another by an engineer.”

He explained that engineering is applied math and went on to tell students that math changed his life. Knowing the Pythagorean theorem, he said, gave him an idea in the late 1980s that led to the development of a robot for NASA. The dean showed off the robot he designed, along with others, in a lab in Pangborn Hall.

Two CUA students displayed their senior-design project, a motorized device intended to get an objective measure of the muscle tone in the wrists of patients with Parkinson's disease. Theresa Murray of Vernon, Conn., and Marvin Gunawan of Glenn Dale, Md., gave youngsters a peek into the inner mechanics of the device designed by them and Kathryn Werner of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The visitors also were able to learn about computer-game programming from Jae Choi, assistant professor of computer science.

“It is my hope that this visit will inspire students to continue their interest in robotics and engineering and that many of them will ultimately apply to Thomas Jefferson for high school,” said Rod Harbin, a Poe Middle School math teacher who arranged the visit. “The Thomas Jefferson students are, likewise, hoping to find inspiration for their own senior projects.”