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Robotics reaches Philadelphia students at all levels

[vimeo 25521464 w=420 h=315] The following is a report done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods Program, the capstone class for the Temple Journalism Department. Without raising the alarm of an artificial intelligence-fueled planet takeover, robots are everywhere in Philadelphia. The Transformers franchise, which has grossed over $1.5 billion to date, is set to […]

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[vimeo 25521464 w=420 h=315]
The following is a report done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods Program, the capstone class for the Temple Journalism Department.
Without raising the alarm of an artificial intelligence-fueled planet takeover, robots are everywhere in Philadelphia.
The Transformers franchise, which has grossed over $1.5 billion to date, is set to release its third installment this summer.  YouTube is inundated with videos of robots doing everything from walking to playing the violin. Honda is set to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its humanoid robot Asimo this fall.
Philadelphia is quietly becoming a hub for the continually exploding robotics industry, especially in the robotics research and education fields.

“In the Philadelphia region we’ve seen so much interest and passion around robotics. There is so much cutting-edge robotics going on in Philadelphia and it is really starting to become a go-to place for robotics,” said Youngmoo Kim, an assistant dean of media technologies at Drexel University, which hosted the first ever Philadelphia Robotics Expo during Philly Tech Week this spring.

“Robotics is a tremendous motivator. Let’s face it—kids think robots are cool. I think robots are cool. Half the reason we do what we do is because it’s cool,” said Kim, who also heads the Music Entertainment Technology laboratory at Drexel, known as MET-Lab, which deals with how technology can be used for creative purposes.
The lab has developed a robot that can dance. But unlike other robots that dance in viral videos, this robot can recognize changes in a song and adjust accordingly.
“It’s a little bit different than other robots in that it is actually listening to the music. If you change the music, it will adapt to the different music. Most other robot videos you see are pre-synchronized so ours is an actively listening robot,” Kim said.
The lab also does work with HUBO, an advanced adult-sized humanoid robot through its partnership with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, as we’ve covered. Drexel is the only university in the United States to have a HUBO robot and the unique access it provides. Kim said that Drexel is looking to expand by adding more HUBO robots and partnering with other institutions for collaborative research efforts.
“We’re getting several more HUBOs in the future and basically sharing them to do joint research,” Kim said of a project that includes relationships with the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Polytechnic Institute among others.

Drexel is also partnering with public high schools right here in Philadelphia. Along with hosting the Robotics Expo this year, Drexel also sends several graduate students to work in classrooms around the district as part of its GK12 program.
The program has engineering graduate students work 10 hours a week with a teacher from the elementary to high school level. The goal of the program is to make the connection between what the kids are learning in the classroom and the exciting applications of that knowledge in engineering fields such as robotics.
“The students will say, ‘Wow, you work with robotics—that’s so cool,’ and we try to show how that involves physics and math to try to get high school students more interested and motivated to study science,” Kim said.
The School District of Philadelphia is not receiving this aid in robotics and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics initiatives externally without making the program a priority internally. The district puts on three different high school robotics competitions each year including the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology competition, Boosting Engineering Science and Technology competition and Marine Advanced Technology Education competition, which District Robotics Coordinator Kendrick Davis said is the only underwater robotics competition in the state.
“Robotics is definitely growing a lot within the district. For instance, the BEST competition at one point had only four schools participating in it, but now it has grown to over 30 schools,” Davis said.
The district is currently putting more resources into initiatives like robotics thanks to the GEAR UP grant, which was awarded to the district last fall and runs for six years. The GEAR UP program seeks to increase college readiness in public school students from early on in their education.
Although the GEAR UP grant has helped the district in its efforts to increase science and technology resources, there are still gaps in the capabilities among schools, especially in activities as expensive as robotics.

“Part of the reason is that people aren’t educated in the importance of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] so they don’t see the need to invest as is necessary to run a sustainable program. Some schools are few and far between and others have an overabundance. So a lot of it is showing why it is important and the impact it has on our student’s academic experience,” Davis said, who also noted that thus far budget cuts have not seriously affected the districts STEM efforts.
“We’re always looking for support. All the teams need financial support and engineers to get involved with their teams,” said Dan Ueda, who leads the Central High School robotics team.
With scarce resources at some schools the district and individual schools have reached out to business to help support STEM initiatives including robotics programs.  The main goal is always to continue the expansion of STEM education and enhancement of student education.
“It’s a double play of what the district is doing and what individual schools are doing to get support,” Davis said, “Our major goal is to keep things running. STEM is definitely a part of the districts action plan. We want to make sure we keep having STEM initiatives and make sure our students are continually exposed to things that are outside of the curriculum, things that will bring it alive.”

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