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Taking robots from the lab to grade school

Engineer Gabe Guemez, center, an educator at the California Science Center, with elementary school students and several Trojans at Legoland (Photo/Zahid Rafique)

While USC’s robotics lab conducts cutting-edge research, an afterschool program funded by the university is studying artificial intelligence at a more elementary level — as in, elementary school.

troybots, a USC Neighborhood Outreach (UNO)-funded program in partnership with the California Science Center that teaches local children how to build basic robots, is holding its first showcase on April 6. The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., will provide the program’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students the opportunity to show off their working robotic models and run them through obstacle courses in the Science Center’s Annenberg Building Big Lab.

troybots was founded in 2010 by Zahid Rafique MS ’03, MBA ’11, information technology director for USC Libraries and an engineer by training. His children attend the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Jr. Science Center School in Exposition Park, and he initially saw the program as a fun way for the school’s students to explore technology on a weekly basis.

But what started with just 24 students has now grown to about 60, Rafique said. Demand for the program has increased so much that children from multiple schools now participate. This year, parents raised additional funds so they could add another class.

Rafique isn’t the only USC connection. Two USC student coaches teach the third- and fourth-graders. Fifth-graders receive help from Michelle McGuire ’00, MAT ’05, EdD ’12, a fifth-grade teacher at the Science Center School, and engineer Gabe Guemez. As a professional in the education field, Guemez is developing curriculum for the fourth-grade students, Rafique said.

UNO-provided funds help pay for Lego Education WeDo and Mindstorm robotics kits, which allow children to work in teams and learn simple programming. Third-graders start with WeDo, a kit for younger children that lets them build models like an airplane or alligator that snaps its mouth, using a laptop to control it. Fourth- and fifth-graders receive the more complex Mindstorm kit, which lets them build fully-functional robots with multiple motors and sensors sensitive to touch and light.

“The idea is to get them started on the basic concepts of robotics and engineering,” Rafique said.

At the end of each year, younger students run an autonomous, wireless robot through an obstacle course. Older students study more complex technological applications: One group drew up a conceptual wristwatch that senses the wearer’s health vitals and can alert a doctor in an emergency.

The troybots teams have started to compete as well. Fifth-graders are challenged to build robots in the Lego League, a world tournament with more than 300 rival teams in the Los Angeles area. This year, troybots students at one of the qualifying tournaments were noted by the judges for being the youngest of any participants.

“That was a big confidence booster for our kids,” Rafique said.

The program recently received a Lego Education Showcase grant, which provided additional materials so that parents and kids can build models together. But Rafique said the program would have been impossible without the help of the UNO, which provides a large part of the funding, and Ron Rohovit, deputy director for education at the Science Center, who’s been supportive of the troybots.

In the future, Rafique wants to collaborate with schools such as Foshay Learning Center, which has its own robotics teams that are middle- and high-school aged. He even hopes USC’s actual robotics lab may be willing to participate in some way.

For now, Rafique said, it’s enough to have his aspiring roboticists sharing their work with the wider community.

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