Julisa Chavez, 11, of Arlington traces her interest in robotics to a girls’ Lego building set she played with when she was much younger, when boys her age were “building race cars and stuff.”
“I started building random things, like hearts and girly stuff, like flowers, out of Legos,” Chavez, a sixth-grader at Harmony Science Academy in Euless, said as she concentrated on an intricate plastic-and-metal robot at the East Arlington Branch Library on a recent Tuesday.
Her team was among four student groups building small motorized robots and writing programs to make them do something helpful, like grasp an object and carry it to a doll patient.
“The theme is assistive robotics — robots that can help people in need,” said Gian-Luca Mariottini, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Arlington department of computer science and engineering, and the creator of the pilot 12-week after-school program. “The goal is to have robots at home or in the hospital that can carry medicines, give medicines to people in need in a disaster-response area.”
Mariottini’s short-range goal is to expand the pilot program into the Technology Education Academy — a broader program to nudge middle and high school students toward the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics., called STEM.
“They’re all exploring programming and robotics,” he said, “but still, at the same time, having fun.”
He involved several of his graduate students in computer science to mentor the youth teams during weekly 90-minute sessions, which were set to conclude this week. Gustavo Puerto, who is working on a Ph.D., said the mentors try to help without getting too involved.
“We’re letting them go in the direction they want to go,” Puerto said. “We just try to find a way that it actually works.”
They’ve been meeting in a classroom-size space at the east-side library that in 2011 was converted into a computer and technology lab with a grant from the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Arlington Youth Foundation.
The library lab, at 1624 New York Ave., has been open to students who want to use the computers, study, play video games or participate in other tech-related activities.
Mariottini said his inspiration for the project came from an invitation last year to talk about robotics to students who frequent the library lab.
“I brought some flying robots, like drones,” he said.
He was a hit. And he was impressed by the kids and the room itself.
“I saw this great facility, and I asked them, ‘Do you have an educational curriculum, so that the kids don’t simply play with robots, but they also get passionate about the technology, get passionate about mathematics, get passionate about team working, about problem solving?’” Mariottini said. “All of these things are important later on if you want to go to college.”
The Arlington Tomorrow Foundation provided a $25,000 grant to help Mariottini develop the curriculum and buy equipment for the pilot program, and to help him expand after-school tech-oriented programs at the library as well some schools in the Arlington district, which is collaborating on the campaign.
Mariottini envisions a floating tech program that would make stops at one or more schools at a time.
Marla Boswell, an interim librarian, said she’s enthusiastic about the robot academy because of how willingly the students are learning.
“There’s no one who has to be here — like their mom is making them do it,” she said. “You can tell that everyone here is engaged.”
The brief experience has already caused Chavez to rethink her career path.
“When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “And now, I’m kind of wanting to be an engineer, or a teacher to help kids with robots.”
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7100