ARL inspires APG youth toward STEM fields through mentoring, building robots

February 10, 2011

ABERDEEN, Md. - The gymnasium at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Youth Center was quickly transformed into a technology production plant for the more than one hundred students who attended the National Engineering Week 2011 two-hour workshop Jan. 25, sponsored by the Army Research Laboratory and its funding partner, the National Defense Education Program.

Event organizers Dr. Lisa Marvel, Computational and Information Sciences Directorate, and Dr. Sandy Young, Weapons and Materials Research Directorate, rallied a team of ARL volunteers to help guide students in building Bristle Bots which combine a toothbrush, a battery and a couple of wires connected by rubber bands, and a solar-powered car.

"Bristle bots are simplistic robots that help students learn about electricity, basic circuiting, energy, motion, and innovation," said Marvel. Each student built their own Bristle then participated in a mini-competition to see whose robot could follow a straight course and how much time it takes them to do it, she explained. Youth built solar cars in groups and were able to take car kits home to build as family projects.

The National Defense Education Program (NDEP) is a program sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense that gives ARL's site at APG funding to run outreach events in the local area. Through this funding, ARL works with, on average, 5,000 to 6,000 students, said Young. In past years, participation has increased to as many as 8,000.

For Young, working with students at the beginning of their education experiences helps her remember, as a researcher, the excitement, curiosity, and drive that made her want to go into science.

"Students often use technology like automatic toothbrushes, their parents' cell phones, and Wii remotes, all things that vibrate but don't know or see how they work. By making Bristle bots, the students were able to not only see the parts and how the vibration works but put it together and gain a basic understanding.

"The solar car session was also good since students had to build the vehicle from scratch. However, because it was cloudy the students were unable to test their vehicles to see how they worked. Hopefully they brought them home and tested them another day. A testament to the students' interest was that groups of students were called away for snack-time but came back afterwards to keep plugging away on building the solar car," Young reminisced.

She said science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education is "hugely important to the future of ARL's workforce. We have seen a direct increase in knowledge of our student programs and students going from general outreach to GEMS (Gains in the Education of Mathematics) to SEAP (Science to Science and Engineering Apprentice Program) to college programs and applying to get into the workforce as a result of our STEM outreach efforts.

"Researchers also get a lot from mentoring students from having to learn how to explain things in simpler ways to teaching basic lab or computer skills. Mentoring and education outreach also help get better trained students during the summers which makes it easier on the mentors and helps to get smaller projects done."

Even if students we interact with do not go into STEM disciplines, she said, helping students develop better critical thinking skills is really important in all aspects of life.

"I thought it was fantastic," Marvel said of the event. "We were fortunate to have so many volunteers and the support of the youth center staff."

Marvel said ARL volunteers were, from WMRD, Dr. Sandy Young, Matt Kiefert, Dr. Chris Hoppel, Mark Griep. From the Survivability/Lethality Analysis Directorate, volunteers were Lee Butler, Ethan Kerzner, Michael Leupold, Ann Vogt and Ashley Bomboy. Retired ARL employees, Ann Bornstein, formerly from CISD, and Albert Marvel, formerly an IT manager joined with other non-ARL employees Paula Hoppel and students with ARL-sponsored teams TechBrick and FIRST Robotics.

"One of the things that really made this event a success was pairing up the youth center middle schoolers with the pre-K and K children from the child development center," Marvel noted.

National Engineers Week was started in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers, and is recognized the third full week of February. Its purpose is to call attention to the societal contributions of engineers, and to emphasize the importance of learning math, science and technical skills. The event coincides with President George Washington's birthday; he was considered the nation's first engineer for his notable survey work. .


Last Update / Reviewed: February 10, 2011