By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, email@example.com
San Diego, Calif., Sept. 20, 2010 — When Alessandro Paz grows up, he wants to build flying saucers for a living.
He already knows what they’ll look like: Blue and gray spinning disks topped with domes, each of them about as big as a house. Oh, and they’ll be “powered by zero-point energy.”
“That’s theoretical energy from a vacuum,” explains Alessandro’s dad. Or more specifically, the lowest possible energy that a quantum physical system may have.
Clearly, Alessandro is not your average six-year-old. Already a science and engineering buff, he was a natural fit for Moonbots Challenge, a hands-on robotics program held for eight weeks this summer at the University of California, San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).
About 15 children ranging in age from 6 to 11 participated in the program, which was sponsored by ViaSat (a producer of satellite and other digital communications) and led by Calit2’s MyLab Director Saura Naderi. Naderi collaborated with the San Diego Space Society to recruit children for the challenge, which taught them the basics of robot design, from gear mechanics to programming.
“The goal of the program is to make an autonomous Lego® robot that will explore a Lego lunar surface,” she remarked. “I didn’t think I could expect 8-year-olds to completely build a robot, but I knew I could give them the tools to tell me how to design it and throw out ideas that were realistic."
The idea for a space-exploring Lego robot stemmed from a competition sponsored by Google called the Google Lunar X Prize, which asked teams of young roboticists to design and build a Lego robot that could complete certain challenges like navigating craters and picking up ‘water ice’ in the form of small plastic rings.
Two members of Calit2’s Moonbots Challenge team, Weston Braun, 14, and Miles Casado, 15 (who are both enrolled in Encinitas’ San Dieguito Academy) took on the Lunar X Prize challenge earlier this year under the guidance of the San Diego Space Society (SDSS), which eventually put the duo in touch with Naderi. Naderi secured a $3,000 grant from Viasat to fund the robot, with the caveat that if the robot didn’t make it to the final round of the X Challenge competition, they would use the funds to educate other children about robotics.
Braun and Casado’s eventual loss turned out to be a gain for the other children involved with Moonbots, particularly three girls from recruited from a Calit2 partnering community group, the Town & Country Learning Center (TCLC). TCLC provides educational and other support resources to low-income, underserved families in East San Diego.
One of those girls, Longfellow Elementary third-grader Pariss Payne, has flourished in the summertime program. Naderi says that she picked up computer programming right away, and was even assisting some of the other girls to learn Scratch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-designed tool used to teach children programming.
Payne also appeared to grasp the basics of gearing mechanisms — at only eight years old. After a lesson in the difference between differential gears and worm gears, Naderi interrupted Payne as she was helping to assemble part of the Lego lunar landing module and gave her a little pop quiz.
“Pariss, if I have a big gear on one side of the robot, and a small gear on the other, which side is faster?” she asked.
Payne didn’t hesitate. “The small one.”
Naderi’s reply? “Yesssss!”
Chris Radcliff, secretary of the SDSS and the father of one of the boys participating in the Moonbots Challenge, said his group was interested in collaborating with Naderi and Calit2 to promote the “one-two punch of exposing kids in the crucial middle school range to science and engineering concepts.
“We want to teach them that space is something that you do, not just something that you dream about,” he said.
ViaSat Software Engineer Sheridan Wright, who volunteers his time to help Naderi with the program, echoed the sentiment.
“A part of every job is education,” he added, “and I enjoy sharing with them some of the things Viasat does. We want them to know that there are science and engineering possibilities beyond Earth, like working with terrestrial satellites. We hope these kids will continue to have an interest in engineering and maybe build a career from it.”
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, firstname.lastname@example.org