Tech parents guide the next generation of space engineers

Palm Crest Elementary School sits four miles away from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where a team built and developed the Mars rover Curiosity, the largest machine sent to another planet.

But engineers at the La Cañada Flintridge lab may have some competition on the horizon: The school is starting a robotics program and a handful of students have already participated in an international competition.

PHOTOS: Palm Crest Elementary robotics team shows off skills

After parents — including some who worked on Curiosity — secured a grant to work on a new pilot robotics program for elementary students, they put together a team of 10 students.

The team, named 2% Milk, had a month to develop the machine, using a kit supplied by VEX Robotics. At the Anaheim Convention Center last month, they wheeled out their creation, Bessy, which had the capacity to drop tennis balls into buckets.

They didn’t win first place, but parents think the experience was valuable.

“At sixth grade, it’s hard to know what science and math is going to be good for,” said Fred Serricchio, a JPL engineer who worked on guiding Curiosity to Mars. “It’s important to give them a real world experience.”

Serricchio’s son, Owen, competed in Anaheim. He said the students involved in the competition were already interested in robotics and science, so it didn’t take much to encourage them.

“There was very little guidance,” he said. “They were very enthusiastic.”

Now parents are trying to drum up support to sustain a robotics program at the school.

Sugi Sorensen, another JPL engineer and Palm Crest parent, said there are about 20 parents who work at the lab, and of those, at least eight worked on Curiosity.

“We figured it’s a natural fit,” Sorensen said. “We have so many [JPL] parents who have kids here. We should have a world-class robotics program.”

Sorensen said they had to cancel their first meeting for the program because there was too much interest: More than 90 students showed up. “We didn’t have a room big enough.”

He said he plans to approach local businesses and write letters to obtain grants to get the program running.

The school was able to participate in the VEX Robotics competition last month through Palm Crest parent Hans Ku, who was approached after mentoring high school students for several years on FIRST Robotics competitions.

Ku, a co-founder of the Dreamworks-backed DWA Investments, saw it as a great way to introduce robotics to students at an early age as part of a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

The students involved were able to connect scientific terms to a physical object and understand how things work.

While they were developing the robot to compete in Anaheim, one of the students asked why the robot couldn’t drive up a ramp.

Ku said he replied that it needed more torque. There were more questions: What is torque? How do we give an object more torque?

Ku told the student that it was force applied over a wheel, and that they could exchange power for torque and have both if they added more wheels.

Without the robot as an example, he said, it would have been hard to explain the term to an elementary school student. “I don’t know how else to better convey what that means than show it.”

Ku, who has held technology roles at places like Disney and Dreamworks, called robotics the “next Internet.”

“I want my kids to be exposed to it, he said, “if not someday get into it.”

Hans Ku has two children at Palm Crest: Jenna, 8 and Kiley, 6. At a rally at Palm Crest last week, both joined the team for a demonstration of the robot Bessy’s skills. While it’s a challenge to keep younger children focused, Ku said, it’s good to start early.

Ku and the other Palm Crest parents hope robotics can have a permanent place on campus.

“This can spark all kinds of future careers,” said Ku. “I do see this as a way to expand the breadth of in-classroom education deep into a realm that really isn’t touched on until probably college in most schools.”


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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