Student engineers win techHUB grant

Posted: March 16, 2016

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Lower-income middle school students in Central Ohio will soon learn to build their own “petting zoo” of robots, thanks to a new grant program between techHUB and student engineers at The Ohio State University.

The official technology store at Ohio State, techHUB started its new Student Project Development Grant program this past spring, with the goal of finding innovative student teams able to bring technical ideas to light. Applying teams were narrowed down to five group finalists, representing anything from dance and ecology to electronics, which then pitched their ideas on Feb. 25 for a chance at funding.

After tallying student votes and committee scores, the Ohio State electrical and mechanical engineering team of Polina Brodsky and Clayton Greenbaum was named among the three winners.

Brodsky and Greenbaum pitched a RoboZoo Hackathon concept, designed to introduce middle school students to computer programming, engineering and teamwork by creating an opportunity for them to design and build robotic animals in the classroom. The robots are made of simple materials, like cardboard and microcontrollers, with a target audience geared toward middle school children in lower-income schools.

Once the RoboZoo concept is established through techHub funding, the team plans to further coordinate with COSI, the Columbus Zoo and Children’s Hospital, so even younger children can interact with the robots created by the middle schoolers.

Greenbaum said he and Brodsky first got the idea for the children’s Hackathon concept through a suggestion from Ohio State Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering professor and associate chair, Betty Lise Anderson.

After more digging, he said, they learned some communities were doing robot petting zoos.

“We fell in love with the idea,” Greenbaum said.

He also explained how his background in electrical engineering and Brodsky's experience in mechanical engineering played a dual role in the development of the RoboZoo plan.

“Electrical engineering plays a central role in this project because the robots will have some kind of controller, or embedded system, that takes measurements from sensors and drives actuators,” Greenbaum said. “However, at the level that these students are participating, most of the actual electrical engineering is hidden by layers of abstraction. So, this project is really a clever demonstration of the power of abstraction in the engineering process.”

With funding in place, the team plans to hold the student Hackathon in October or November.

“In the mean time, we are going to start gathering materials, securing the technology we need for the project, developing curriculum and training materials, handling the logistics of a workspace and exhibition, and trying to generate interest,” Greenbaum said.

Anderson, who attended the techHUB pitch night, said the pet robots are designed to interact with the children.

“For example, if you ‘feed’ the robot a post-it note, it flaps its wings or does a dance,” she said.

The Hackathon concept, she said, is designed so programming or electronics experience is required.

Other techHUB team winners include student Katherine Beigel and her Hyperaccumulator Robot designed to decontaminate water, as well as student Peter Hollander and his Talaria VR project, which is a device worn on the heel that senses movement and allows users to walk around in a virtual reality video game.