At Takoma Park Middle School, students learn to program robots provided by NASA

Julian Parish-Katz, 11, of Takoma Park works with naval mechanical engineer Michael Britt-Crane during a science club meeting at Takoma Park Middle School. Britt-Crane meets weekly with the students to teach them how to use calculator robots.
Julian Parish-Katz, 11, of Takoma Park works with naval mechanical engineer Michael Britt-Crane during a science club meeting at Takoma Park Middle School. Britt-Crane meets weekly with the students to teach them how to use calculator robots. (Rachel Fus/the Gazette)
By Jeremy Arias
The Gazette
Thursday, January 28, 2010

When Takoma Park Middle School Science Club member Emmanuel Minja heard that the club would learn to program calculator robots donated by NASA, his curiosity and imagination went into overdrive.

"I thought it was going to be one huge robot controlled by a giant calculator," the 14-year-old Silver Spring resident said with a grin as he punched in equations on his handheld TI-84 calculator. "I didn't know they were going to be smaller, and everybody would have their own."

The robots resemble miniature Mars rovers: small, flat-back carts with two wheels and a jack to connect the TI-84s. By entering an equation or command in the calculator, students can send the rovers racing off across the floor. Michael Britt-Crane, a naval mechanical engineer who meets with the club members on Wednesdays to teach them how to use the robots, explained that the resemblance to rovers was intentional as he helped another student recalibrate his robot to drive in a straight line.

"The curriculum is all related to the Mars rover project," Britt-Crane said. He explained that for students to complete their "missions," they must figure out a math equation or approximate measurement within a scenario faced by real NASA and Navy scientists.

The "CalcBots" were donated by NASA and the National Defense Education Program, which also pays for Britt-Crane's weekly visits. A logbook of experiments and scenarios that students can perform with the robots and the calculator is available, experiments that Britt-Crane said he hopes will inspire students to pursue science.

The NDEP funds outreach programs in schools nationwide, as well as funding scholarships for and research done by college students studying engineering and technology, according to the program's Web site.

"The reason that we target middle schools is because that is the point where kids begin to fork off into those that are interested in science and those who lose interest in it," Britt-Crane said. "Our purpose is to inspire kids to take math and science in middle school and continue with it to maybe become scientists or engineers someday."

Across the room, Raanan Hileman, 14, was having trouble. Despite his best efforts, he could not get his robot to travel in a straight line.

"This was loose, so I had to tighten it and add a little glue," he said, pointing out the robot's right axle as he lined it up for another trial run. "I'm supposed to put it next to a meter stick on the floor to measure how long it takes, but I can't if it won't go straight."

Soon Hileman was joined by Britt-Crane and science teacher David Pixler as they tried to determine whether the rover runs differently over the tabletop and floor. After a series of corrections failed to straighten out the glitch, Britt-Crane yielded to the inevitable.

"You might just have a bad robot," he said. "The calibration is really tricky . . . but we're getting to the point where we're as close as we're going to get to perfect."

Within minutes Hileman was back out in the hall running his rover with the intention of getting his estimate recorded before the announcement for the end of after-school activities sounded at 4 p.m.


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