Teaching Robotics to the Next Generation

Christopher Scianna, ECE'19, shared his experiences of helping sixth graders build "sumo robots" at the Fall 2016 Service-Learning Expo.

Source: News @ Northeastern

Varsha Ram­sumair said she teared up during her final visit with the Boston ele­men­tary school stu­dents she’d been working with this semester through a service- learning course called “Human Ser­vices Professions.”

Ram­sumair, SSH’20, a com­bined major in human ser­vices and crim­inal jus­tice, and three other stu­dents men­tored female third- , fourth- , and fifth- graders for 90 min­utes on Friday after­noons through a part­ner­ship with Northeastern’s chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls. The cur­riculum is designed around the non­profit organization’s mis­sion of empow­ering girls, with col­lege stu­dents serving as role models and leading a range of activities—from helping the girls share their “peaks and val­leys” moments of the day to dis­cussing promi­nent female leaders and role models.

The par­tic­u­larly touching moment, Ram­sumair recalled, came when one of the girls admitted that early in the semester she wasn’t sure whether these col­lege men­tors would truly care for her and her peers. But, according to Ram­sumair, the girl said, “by the end she felt like she could really be herself.”

Ram­sumair noted that she was struck by the ability of the girls and col­lege men­tors to bring “good energy” into each other’s days. Through the service- learning expe­ri­ence, she dis­cov­ered she wants to con­tinue working with youth, noting, “This is such a good cause I believe in.” She added that a sig­nif­i­cant part of her class­work focused on ana­lyzing and defining social change, which she kept in the front of her mind when working with the girls. “True to the con­tent of my class, I want these girls to be empow­ered to create pos­i­tive social change, to believe in their effi­cacy,” she said.

Ram­sumair was one of more than 200 stu­dents who pre­sented at the Fall 2016 Service- Learning Expo, held last week in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room. Service- learning is a form of expe­ri­en­tial learning that inte­grates aca­d­e­mics and ser­vice in order to merge class­room and com­mu­nity goals throughout the semester. Stu­dents’ course­work includes serving the com­mu­nity by vol­un­teering directly or com­pleting projects with one of many of Northeastern’s service- learning partner organizations—from schools and city depart­ments, to non­profits that serve neigh­bor­hoods, youth, and the elderly—and then linking those expe­ri­ences back to the classroom.

True to the con­tent of my class, I want these girls to be empow­ered to create pos­i­tive social change, to believe in their effi­cacy.
—Varsha Ram­sumair, SSH’20

More than 800 stu­dents enrolled in service- learning courses this fall, col­lec­tively working with 114 com­mu­nity part­ners, according to Haomu Chen, AMD’18. He planned the expo as part of his co- op in the service- learning pro­gram, which is part of the Center of Com­mu­nity Ser­vice within Northeastern’s Office of City and Com­mu­nity Affairs.

Becca Berkey, director of service- learning at North­eastern, said the expo gives stu­dents the chance to learn about their peers’ work in the neigh­bor­hoods sur­rounding campus while show­casing the university’s myriad com­mu­nity partners.

Berkey under­scored the breadth and depth of the work service- learning fac­ulty do, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to showing stu­dents how so many disciplines—from engi­neering, to busi­ness, to com­puter sci­ence, to art—have a place in civic society. “That’s some­thing you can’t sim­u­late; it’s really some­thing spe­cial,” she said.

Among the expo’s pre­sen­ters was Christo­pher Scianna, a third- year elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering major. Scianna and his class­mates in the “Cor­ner­stone Robotics” course, taught by teaching pro­fessor Susan Freeman, con­nected with sev­eral com­mu­nity part­ners to help sixth graders build “sumo robots” designed to face off against each other in friendly competition.

Scianna worked with stu­dents at the Orchard Gar­dens K- 8 Pilot School in Boston’s Rox­bury neigh­bor­hood. He said that though this service- learning expe­ri­ence, North­eastern stu­dents teach youth skills such as engi­neering design and coding as they build robots together throughout the semester. To hone their own skills, Scianna and his peers build dif­ferent robots in class as part of their coursework.

This semester marked the third service- learning course Scianna has taken in which he’s taught local youth about robotics through this part­ner­ship, and he said it’s been rewarding to help advance STEM edu­ca­tion. “They’re get­ting this expe­ri­ence in 6th and 7th grade,” said Scianna, who didn’t get involved in robotics until his freshman year at North­eastern, “and hope­fully it can be a step­ping stone for them.”

Related Faculty: Susan Freeman

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering