The scene played out exactly like Paul George had envisioned for the School of Engineering’s first Experiencing Engineering & Robotics camp.

Campers at the School of Engineering’s first Experiencing Engineering & Robotics camp had to use geometry, programming measurement, measurement accuracy and other disciplines to make their calculations.
Three sixth graders were sprinting from the classroom into the hall, carefully carrying their robot Fred to the obstacle course. They were hurrying to see if Fred could carry out the bomb-detection scenario it had to complete successfully. It was a test run, and the three students were eager to see if their calculations were on the mark.

With the push of a button, the robot maneuvered autonomously through the course — turning right, right and then left — before rolling several feet up to the suspicious suitcase, hitting its mark exactly. That’s when Fred began playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

“They programmed that on their own,” George says of the music. “These guys were strangers at the beginning of the week. Sometimes they got frustrated with each other and the robot, but at the end of the day they’re coming together and they’re working.”

George, director of development and external relations in the School of Engineering, watched more than 20 middle- and high-school students learn engineering fundamentals and the disciplines of biomedical, civil, electrical, materials and mechanical engineering during the weeklong camp. Other camp experiences included modules consisting of in-class training and laboratory experiences to introduce programming and robotics.

The final project of the camp was the bomb-detection scenario. Campers had to program and control hand-built robots to locate a questionable suitcase that poses a threat to an airport terminal. The students used remote-sensing and navigation capabilities to complete the task.

“Our goal was to provide a camp where they had a real opportunity to learn robotics and engineering principles together,” George says. “The project required significant engineering calculations to make it work. It wasn’t trivial to build a robot and drive it from here to here. They had to be precise.”

Math-focused exercise
Gregg Vaughn, Ph.D., chair of Electrical Engineering, showed the campers the math needed to program the robot. They had to calculate the distances when the robot would turn and the direction it had to turn.

They had to use geometry, programming measurement, measurement accuracy and other disciplines to make their calculations. Campers also had to account for other inaccuracies with their equipment, such as different size wheelbases.

“Engineers make measurements, and finite accuracy is essential,” Vaughn says. “If two rubber tires are not the same size and you want to make it turn, you’ve got to compensate for the fact they’re not the same size, especially if you want the turn to be accurate. Programming depends on the physical structures and the physical measurements they have to make. They have to build the car and measure it and then write the code to make it perform what they want it to do for that particular set of measurements. And the measurements may change. The battery voltage changes, so you can’t depend on the speed and time always working because of the battery changes.

“They’ve learned that engineers compensate for all of these variables and make it work anyway.”

Preparing for Blazer B.E.S.T.
The School of Engineering has hosted summer camps for years, but this marked the first time it made robotics a focus.

George says the robotics element was essential now that UAB is one of four Alabama hubs to host the community outreach program known as Boosting Engineering, Science & Technology — or B.E.S.T. The campus hosted its first Blazer B.E.S.T. competition this past fall. Students from 21 area middle and high schools competed in the competition in which they had to build a robot from raw scrap materials that could be used to assemble an airplane.

This year’s Blazer B.E.S.T. competition is scheduled for Oct. 17 in Bartow Arena.

“Some of these young people will go back to their schools and become part of existing teams,” George says. “I think some will go back and encourage a teacher to help get a team started. We’ll keep in close contact with them, reach out to their schools and say ‘Whatever we can do to help you get a team started, we’d love to do it.”

The School of Engineering is working closely with the community of engineers in and around Birmingham to excite younger students about math and science and expand the pool of engineers. 

“These kids had a great time learning,” Vaughn says. “They were digging into help files and figuring out commands that we didn’t teach them. They were adding songs to their robot and doing fun stuff they figured out on their own. The mystique is gone now, and they’re starting to understand it. That means they don’t regard the system as magic; they’re starting to understand it and really get interested in it.”