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Shepherd hosts robot event

By Staff | Mar 9, 2012

SHEPHERDSTOWN – As a small crowd of wide-eyed children and eager adults watched the white-painted maze on the Butcher Center gym’s hardwood floor, 20-year-old Shepherd University sophomore Courtney Crites carefully placed a homemade miniature robot into the proverbial squared circle.

Looking on with a mixture of baited breath and nerve-wracking anxiety, the computer engineering major observed the small, plastic automaton as it slowly but successfully navigated the maze, deftly snuffing out a lit candle at the end with one fell swoop of a makeshift appendage. One day in the future, such automated robots might be able to put out small fires before the first firefighters even arrive on scene, but for now students in Shepherd University’s Department of Computer Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering (CME) can breathe a sigh of relief if the little robots don’t get stuck on a wall.

“It’s actually very scary and it’s very nerve-wracking. … Obviously if it loses you can be quite upset, but if it wins then it’s extremely rewarding just to know that you created something that can do extremely well against other people,” Crites said.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the gym, remote-controlled, four-legged “mechs” battled each other within a walled-off miniature cityscape. Their human operators clutched modified videogame controllers and stared intently at their laptops, using webcams mounted on the robotic warriors to locate and fire BB pellets at each other.

The dual scenes that played out this weekend were both part of Shepherd University’s 2012 ShepRobo Fest, a two-day competition that lets students put what they’ve learned in the classroom to the test, all while using robotics to inspire interest in studying science, math and engineering.

“We are doing this in order to have more awareness for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, so the kids can really be impressed and motivated by these robots to get into STEM education and science,” said Dr. Seung-yun Kim, an assistant professor with the university’s CME department. “… We need to let them know that with engineering and science, it’s not a boring subject. It’s not a hard subject. They should see it as fun and worthwhile, too.”

In 2010 Shepherd University’s CME department was awarded one of only two research trust fund grants through the West Virginia Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). ShepRobo Fest is sponsored in part by the grant, with matching donor support through the Shepherd University Foundation. This was the second year the robotics competition was held at the university.

“Our main focus is to inspire students and to inspire young kids, not only to inspire them to see what’s going on, but also we want them to remain inspired so they find themselves in the future, with all these developments, to be part of it,” said professor Reza Mirdamadi, chair of the CME department. “All this technology is coming along, and we want them to be a part of it. We want them to have something to contribute.”

Students studying robotics at the university already have made great strides through the program. Students are currently preparing to travel at the end of the month to Trinity University in Hartford, Conn., to compete in an international robotic firefighting competition. Last year, Shepherd University students placed third in the competition, which sees about 70 to 80 teams from around the world.

Most students, however, were focused on the task at hand. Some even slept in blankets underneath tables in the gym as they worked night and day to be prepared.

“I’ve only had a maximum of like four hours of sleep this weekend. We’ve been working mostly straight on. Fun is always the feeling of success at the end,” said Emad Khan, a 21-year-old junior and computer engineering major.

Khan later took the controls of “Orcus,” one of the robot warriors featured in mech-warfare bouts.

Fellow team member Aaron Ladd, a 20-year-old sophomore and computer programmer, echoed the exhaustion-elation mix students felt as their complex machines came to life.

“It gets aggravating at times when stuff goes wrong – which it does a lot – but by the end of the day, once you get the thing working, it’s all worth it. We love this stuff,” Ladd said.

For others like Crites, one of the more rewarding aspects is helping to get more children and students of all ages more interested in studying mathematics, science and engineering.

“It’s honestly really exciting to see kids running around here asking questions and asking what we are doing. I really just want to see them interested in it because most people I know don’t even care about science and mathematics,” Crites said. “Seeing the kids come in here and having them see the actual application of it I think is really good for them.”