Faculty, Alumni and Students Reach Youth Through Robotics

The National University community knows robots are cool.

From alumni to faculty and students, there is an appreciation for the value of animated mechanical entities – those engineered bundles of software and wire capable of carrying out programmable actions.

Some of us grew up with robots in film, literature and comic books. They represented technological advances that might bridge science fiction with a brighter tomorrow, or perhaps destroy mankind. We knew them as Robbie, Rosy C3PO, WALL-E and Megatron.

Today, a new generation sees robots in a different light and appreciates them as powerful educational tools. They attract students to science and math curricula and help to channel young minds into promising positions in engineering and industry.  Just ask Lewis Chappelear or James Jaurez.

Mr. Chappelear (credential, 2001) leads one of the nation’s premier educational robotics programs at Monroe High School in Los Angeles.  With federal funding, he converted a run-down classroom into a state-of-the-art robotics lab, ultimately helping his students to gain internships with aerospace companies, earn scholarships to leading universities and secure high-paying jobs in the tech sector. Consequently, Mr. Chappelear was named California Teacher of the Year in 2008.

The distinguished alumnus has enjoyed consistent success, and last year his Monroe High School team qualified for the California State Championships.

Dr. Jaurez is an associate professor in National University’s School of Engineering and Computing. He is also coach and head mentor for the robotics program at National University Academy. This is NUA’s second year in the First Robotics Competition (FRC) program, where high school students from all over the world are challenged to create competition robots to meet a specific challenge.

The program’s desired outcome is to build interest and inspire students to consider and pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields of study; but according to Juarez, robotics also promotes professional skills and character.

“The motto of FRC is gracious professionalism. Through its program, we teach more than robotics. We promote the ideas of teamwork and collaboration,” said Dr. Jaurez.

As Mr. Chappelear or Dr. Jaurez will explain, high school robotics teams compete in an arena, and the atmosphere there is much like a high school football game. Last year’s arena was at San Diego’s Valley View Casino Center, and it attracted 58 high schools and well over a thousand students.  Inside the arena, there are six robots, three each for each alliance.  Leaders of FC decide on the structure and nature of the competition. This year’s is called “Stronghold.”

“It’s going to be about battling, shooting things and traversing various terrains and obstacles,” Dr. Jaurez explained. “There will be a number of complexities that the students have to build toward.”

NUA has two labs set up in Kearny Mesa, thanks to support from the School of Engineering.  One was converted into a robotics-building lab, and the second s called the User Experience Computing Lab.  According to the NUA robotics coach, “that’s where a lot of ideas and conceptualization takes place.”

The NUA robotics program is a club first and foremost, but this year students are receiving academic credit. Club members meet after school.  “During build season, you wouldn’t believe how much time they put in,” Dr. Juarez explained.  “They come from 2:30 to 8:30 pm several times a week.  We’re reaching the close of a six-week time period, when they have to build a robot from scratch.”

FRC Competition begins in March.  Last year was NUA’s rookie year (for more information, click here).  The students finished around 42nd out of 58, and Dr. Jaurez said they did well considering their “complete inexperience.”  Practically the whole team is returning.  They received a lot of extra coaching over the summer, thanks in particular to Dr. Alireza Farahani, professor and interim chair of the School of Engineering and Computing’s department of computer science and information systems.  The school’s dean, Dr. John Cicero, has also been a huge supporter.

Dean Cicero has supported us in many ways, including bringing in pizza from time to time,” explained Dr. Jaurez. “We have also benefited from a number of engineering students who have been serving as mentors.”  Engaged faculty will present on their experience, and the interaction between faculty, NU students and NUA students at the upcoming “learning through leading” segment at the National University Spring Symposium.

Finally, the robotics coach wishes to thank NUA’s executive director, Kim Marro, and its director, Sumaiyah Vedder, for their assistance and support in building the program.

“We’re always up to some fun stuff,” but the bottom line is that we’re shaping the character and future of some very talented and promising young minds,” said Dr. Jaurez. For more information on the NUA Robotics Team, contact Dr. Jaurez at jaurez@nu.edu.