Robotics Education Spreads Among HBCUs

When Dr. Andrew Williams began teaching at Spelman College three years ago, he had a hunch that science and engineering students at the all-female and private historically Black college would flock to the study of robotics not unlike the science and engineering students who gravitate to the growing field at the top research institutions. Not only did Williams guess right, it turns out that his teaching and research efforts in the subject would help spark a robotics education movement that now extends from the Atlanta-based women’s college to several historically Black colleges and universities.

Helping out in the effort are scientists from major research universities, such as Dr. David Touretzky, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Williams and Touretzky are the principal investigator and co-principal investigator, respectively, of the Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact (ARTSI) Alliance project. With support from a three-year, $2 million grant by the National Science Foundation announced this past fall, ARTSI will help fund a second wave of robotics education at eight historically Black schools and stimulate outreach efforts at the K-12 level.

“The ARTSI program builds upon the work others and I have been doing to offer HBCU students robotics and computer science education,” Williams says.

Today, the National Science Foundation kicks off the ARTSI Alliance during the organization’s annual Martin Luther King celebration at the NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va. Williams is scheduled to deliver the keynote address during the celebration that includes demonstrations of robots developed by the SpelBots, Spelman’s robotics team. 

Professors from Carnegie Mellon and the other alliance members are providing courses, research internships and mentoring opportunities to students based at the participating HBCUs. Other alliance members are University of Pittsburgh, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Brown University, Duke University, the University of Alabama and the University of Washington. In addition to Spelman, the participating HBCUs are Morgan State University, Hampton University, Norfolk State University, Winston-Salem State University, Florida A&M University, the University of the District of Columbia and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

“Some of these schools are getting their first research-quality robots,” Touretzky says, noting that some schools will establish basic robotics courses for the first time.          

Through previous collaboration, Spelman and three other schools already have established robotic programs based on the Tekkotsu, a robot programming system developed in Touretzky’s lab and distributed for free by the Pittsburgh-based university, according to Touretzky. Alliance members are sponsoring a faculty development workshop this summer to  provide professional development activities for HBCU faculty teaching computer science and robotics courses.

Williams credits Touretzky for playing a major role in helping spread robotics education beyond Spelman College. He says the Carnegie Mellon professor contacted Williams about collaborating not long after the former University of Iowa professor landed at Spelman in fall 2004. Having moved to Spelman with the intent of expanding the computer science and electrical engineering course offerings at Spelman, Williams soon organized and coached the SpelBots, who began designing and building miniature robots for international student competitions. By 2005, the SpelBots achieved a major feat by becoming the first all-female, all-Black, and all-undergraduate team to qualify for the international RoboCup four-legged soccer competition. The SpelBots have successfully qualified for international robot competitions from 2005 to 2007.

“We’ve been able to take robotics education at Spelman and a few other HBCUs far beyond the scope of what I initially imagined,” Williams says.

The ARTSI Web portal, currently available at http://ARTSIAlliance.org, is under development. 

–Ronald Roach

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