Tulsa engineers mentor youngsters at robotics competition
By Sara Goodeyon
TULSA, Okla. - A group of engineers from the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped out with the Tulsa FIRST LEGO League qualifying event Nov. 10 as part of the district's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) outreach program.
Engineers from the Dam Safety Production Center and an intern from the Tulsa Resident Office helped judge group presentations and the Design and Programming component of the competition, helped coordinate student teams during head-to-head competition, and assisted the photographer.
"STEM is promoting engineering and mathematics in schools," said Daniel Morales, Tulsa District Dam Safety Production Center, Infrastructure Section. "Speaking from experience, when I was growing up, STEM was not really in play as much. It's just trying to get kids excited about the engineering field and it's hard sometimes because teachers don't always know what engineers do, so there's a lack of communication. Career days aren't enough, so, when positive engineering role models come in to things like this competition, where they are engineer-oriented, it gets them excited about engineering earlier on and they can make that transition to engineering."
The FIRST LEGO League is an alliance between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization dedicated to inspiring young people to be science and technology leaders, and the Danish toy company LEGO®. It is a robotics program designed to get children excited about science and technology while teaching them employment and life skills.
About 300 children ages 6 - 14 participated in the event at Memorial High School in Tulsa using autonomous LEGO MINDSTORM robots designed to perform specific functions.
"They are using an advanced set of LEGO's that actually has a brain and is programmable, so the kids write programs and when they build their robot, it is designed to do missions on a 4 by 8 foot surface," said Lane Matheson, director of the engineering academy at Memorial and the event's coordinator. "The missions are representing activities in the life of a senior citizen that would keep them healthy, energetic, and involved in their community. As they send the robot out, it's supposed to do all these interactions."
There is an additional component to the competition that requires the children to interview a senior citizen face-to-face and decide on an issue or problem that the senior faces. The team must come up with an innovative solution for the problem. The team makes a 10 minute presentation to a panel of judges on the day of the competition about how they have done all of that with their project.
"They are learning more skills than just about the robot," said Matheson. "They learn to articulate their thoughts. They're getting experience at interviewing and talking with people and in front of people. They learn to develop a logical presentation. In some cases they've had to do a little bit of writing. Beyond being able to build and program a robot, engineers need to be able to communicate, they need to be able to write and speak. Real engineers have to have those skills."
The push to ignite the interest of young people in the fields of science and technology is in response to a shortage of engineers throughout the United States. Of those students who enter college in the engineering program, 60 percent of them drop out, said Matheson.
The need to cultivate a new generation of engineers is so important that the USACE Chief of Engineers has STEM named as a priority. Tulsa District is very active in the STEM program. In addition to the FIRST LEGO event, the district provides judges for the Tulsa Regional Science Fair and the Tulsa Engineering Challenge Ping-Pong Launcher competition. In conjunction with the Tulsa Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) Post, the district provides guest speakers to area middle and high schools and Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations.
"As a professional engineer active in several local professional societies, past President of Oklahoma Structural Engineers Association, and board member of the Tulsa Society of American Military Engineers, I am keenly aware of the shortage of students moving on into the higher education fields of science and engineering," said Chris Strunk, Tulsa District USACE Dam Safety Production Center, Chief of Dam and Levee Design Section. "This directly impacts the future workforce of the Tulsa District. In order for the district to not only maintain, but increase our design capabilities, we need to insure that the future workforce is well prepared and ready to step in when due time. A common thought amongst educators is that early introduction of applied science and engineering to elementary and junior high students helps prepare them for the numerous opportunities in these fields."
Strunk and Morales worked as judges at the competition; Strunk judged the Design and Programming portion of the event while Morales judged the group presentations. Adam Smith, Levee Design Section, help coordinate student teams for the head-to-head competitions and Tulsa Resident Office intern Robert Felice helped the photographer. They also served as mentors to the participants and promoted the STEM program.
Through such outreach and community involvement, Tulsa District hopes to spur interest among young people to consider science and technology as a career choice.
"I have always been a big believer in empowering our future generations with a spark to help ignite a student's imagination in Science and Engineering," said Strunk. "The Tulsa District has been very supportive of this personal goal, and has provided me many opportunities with the different programs we're involved with. I encourage all of our employees to get involved in our local community and school programs because it is very rewarding to both students and volunteers."