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Toys That Teach

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Prof. Jim Carroll uses the long arm of robotics to reach out to area students.

When Jim Carroll was 12 years old, his father came home from his job as an electrical engineer with GE Corporate Research and Development holding an Intel 8085 “computer” — essentially a kit of components including an 8-bit microprocessor, a keypad and an LCD display — and handed it to his son. “Here, see if  you can put this together,” was his casual challenge. To a budding engineer, this is something akin to a waking dream.

“I soldered it up, programmed it and had it displaying ‘Hello World,’” remembers Carroll, now an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who compares his first exposure to hobby electronics to the explosion of resources available now, such as Lego Mindstorms kits for kids as young as six. “It’s a lot easier to get involved in electronics, computer programming and robotics now,” says Carroll. And if you’re a K-12 student within the North Country, chances are you owe much of that involvement to Carroll himself.

In 1998, Carroll and a Kim O’Toole, a Clarkson freshman, helped organize the Clarkson FIRST ROBOTICS SPEED team. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen that sponsors K-12 level robotics programs. Clarkson’s SPEED teams (Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design) are 12 student-run clubs that put engineering into action to build Formula One racers, concrete canoes, zero-emissions snowmobiles, portable steel bridges, and more. The FIRST ROBOTICS team is a little different, because Clarkson students act as mentors and coaches for a team of local high-school students. |

By 2007, the team, known as Division By Zero — composed of students from Massena and Salmon River High Schools, plus dozens of Clarkson mentors — was a “well-oiled machine,” says Carroll, who is still the team’s faculty advisor. The timing was right to capitalize on the popularity of the robotics competitions, which exude an incredible carnival/sporting event atmosphere, to engage a larger population of local elementary, middle, and high school students.

Lucky for Carroll and the region, the state and federal government has made billions of dollars available for initiatives designed to educate students about careers in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. And robotics is a natural fit.  As a result, Carroll has been involved in various grants to foster the creation of greater robotics participation at younger age levels. With the support of these grants and the Saint Lawrence-Lewis Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (SLL-BOCES) district, local schools began to develop sustainable robotics programs.

Today, Carroll and his Clarkson student mentors interact with more than 30 robotics teams from 18 North Country school districts in addition to hosting annual championship-level FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge tournaments on the Clarkson campus each December. These efforts impact over 300 students per year from elementary through high school.

“Motivating students to pursue careers in STEM disciplines,” says Carroll, who grew up in upstate New York, “is fundamentally important to our state and national competitiveness in the global marketplace.”

Carroll sees robotics as a carrot that can lure students into STEM careers and local teachers as his most effective recruiters. Through an organization called the Northern New York Robotics Institute (NNYRI), Carroll and colleagues at St. Lawrence University, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton offer professional development workshops to show teachers how to translate the creative energy of a robotics competition — the “playground of the engineering imagination,” as Carroll calls it — into standards-compliant classroom activities.

A great example is a lesson plan called “Antarctic Night.” Developed by a group of middle school teachers who attended one of Carroll’s summer workshops in conjunction with a Clarkson Honors student, the idea was to challenge students to design and build a sleeping bag that would allow them to survive a night on the Antarctic ice.

“Rather than build a full-size sleeping bag,” says Carroll, “the students built miniature prototypes for their hands out of various materials like Ziploc bags, duct tape, feathers, tin foil, bubble wrap — whatever they could dream up.” They then used a temperature probe in conjunction with their robotics competition kit hardware and software to log data that would test the effectiveness of their sleeping bag prototypes when placed on a pile of ice. Not only did the kids have a blast while incorporating technology in the classroom; the lesson also closely aligned with the New York State Life Science standards.

Carroll has been successful in creating an array of STEM of activities that involve kindergarteners through Clarkson graduate students. For example, at Clarkson freshman and sophomore students can opt to live in a robotics-themed Living Learning Community, a geeky dreamland tricked out with a high-end smart board and projector, powerful PCs, gaming consoles, and of course robots of various sorts. To earn a spot in the living learning community, students must commit to three hours of outreach service per week to local robotics activities, such as the FIRST robotics programs or working with organizations such as the Girl Scouts. Carroll’s efforts also support sending Clarkson students into the classroom, to help local teachers incorporate robotics into their coursework. 

In his “spare” time, Carroll’s research passion is mechatronics, a blend of engineering disciplines such as robotics, real-time control systems and computer visualization that synergistically combine to create cutting-edge applications. In recent years, he’s helped develop real-time motion capture and 3D visualization systems for modeling virtual soldiers and to deliver cutting-edge interventions to physical therapy patients. Currently, he’s working with other Clarkson faculty and graduate students on a 3D bone modeling system that can predict future bone development for early detection of disease, and a robotic orthosis for the arm that can be used in the home environment.

Learn more about the FIRST Robotics team and how you or your student can get involved with a FIRST team near you.

Jim Carroll

Prof. Jim Carroll
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering