Mirna Galdamez Borja '06, a computer science and engineering student, works in the Mars Yard with a student.
The astronaut had just described spacewalking. The local U.S. congressman and state representative had given a pep talk on the importance of science education. And the school had just been officially designated a NASA Explorer School.
But not until the distinguished guests had descended two flights of stairs and entered an ancient storage room did this assembly day become a truly memorable event.
"Welcome to Mars," Donald Stahl, technology teacher at Harrison Morton Middle School in Allentown, told the guests. He tapped in a code and swung open the room's air-locked door.
All was quiet. The first assembly had just ended and the students were sitting in classrooms upstairs. Twenty minutes remained before the assembly would be repeated before a second group of students.
The guests peered into the storeroom and saw stubbly pink concrete coating the floor.
"Is it OK to step on this?" one woman asked, placing a tentative high-heeled shoe on the rough swirl.
"Go ahead," said Stahl. "This is the stuff they use to fill sinkholes. You could drive a truck over it and it wouldn't break."
The guests—NASA officials and Lehigh professors and students—climbed up onto a makeshift Martian surface. Their attention was drawn to a mural on the wall that was painted to look like the Martian terrain and horizon.
They noticed the six robots—laptop computers mounted on wheeled trays with Webcameras for eyes and large plastic forceps for hands.
"These robots are state-of-the-art," said William Pottenger, assistant professor of computer science and engineering. "They're equipped with the latest in artificial intelligence."
And with human intelligence as well: Two of the robots began to move about among the guests, guided by unseen hands upstairs.
Stahl began to laugh. "Don't worry—this happens a lot when I come down here. The kids see me on their computers, and they try to run the robots into me. "What can you say ... they're eighth-graders."
Only in eighth grade—but the students at Harrison Morton Middle School are learning technology, as well as math and science concepts, thanks to Lehigh, the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA).
Through an NSF-PITA program called Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Lehigh students and professors teach at Harrison Morton and seven other area elementary, middle, and high schools.
Harrison Morton has the added distinction of being a NASA Explorer School, which qualifies it to receive educational materials from the space agency.
Encouraging young kids to pursue science careers
The STEM project awards NSF Teaching Fellowships to Lehigh students to teach students in grades 4-12. The program encourages the younger students to consider careers in STEM disciplines, and focuses on black, Hispanic, and female students, who are underrepresented in STEM fields in college and the professions.
At Harrison Morton, Lehigh students teach mobile robotics, x-y math coordinates, biology, and other topics. Lehigh has also given the school robots, wireless links, multimedia programming software, and other high-tech equipment.
The STEM and NASA efforts at Harrison Morton have converged in the new "Mars Yard," which occupies the 900-square-foot former boiler room in the basement of the 100-year-old school.
After they master the basics of "if-then" computer programming, the eighth-graders in Stahl's technology class form navigation teams with NASA-style titles and assignments. One student is named team captain, another is charged with driving the robot, one is placed in charge of the robot "eyes," and so on.
Working from their desktop computers in the second-story technology classroom, the student teams use a wireless remote-control hookup to guide robots across the Mars Yard, much as NASA scientists in Houston direct Mars Rovers on the surface of the red planet. Their goal is to see which team can get its robot to navigate the hills and valleys of the Yard, pick up a rock, and return to the landing station in the shortest amount of time. In the process, the students fulfill a host of curriculum requirements mandated by the district and the state.
Coaxing a robot to traverse a bumpy landscape is more complicated than it might seem, Stahl told the guests visiting Harrison Morton on assembly day in January. The Webcams atop each robot "see" in only one direction—straight ahead. A second camera positioned lower guides the grippers that pick up rocks.
"We've tried to replicate the challenges faced by the Mars Rovers on Mars," Stahl told the guests. "It's hard for a robot to move up some of these steep grades. Sometimes you have to go around before you can go up."
The idea for building a Mars Yard was conceived by Stahl and the Lehigh STEM team, which is led by Pottenger, an expert in artificial intelligence, and by Henry Odi, executive director of educational outreach programs at Lehigh.
"Dr. Pottenger suggested doing something with robotics," says Stahl, "and Lehigh purchased nine robots for us. I thought that with NASA going to Mars we should do something related to Mars."
After Harrison Morton cleaned eight vertical feet of old furniture from its storage room, architect Stewart Gouck volunteered to design the Mars Yard and Mission Control Center. F.A. Rohrbach Inc. poured 12 cubic feet of a rough, groutlike material called flowable fill into the Yard. Students from Lehigh Carbon Technical Institute built stations for the landing platforms where the robots are docked and recharged.
Meanwhile, Harrison Morton students assembled the robots donated by Lehigh.
The idea, says Stahl, was to make technology fun in an out-of-this-world way.
"Once the kids play with the robots, I have them hooked. I can teach them anything I want."
Lehigh is in the third year of a $1.6-million STEM grant from NSF and PITA and plans to apply for a five-year renewal. The STEM program at Lehigh also receives financial support from the university itself and Agere Systems Inc. Binney & Smith, Gouck Architects, Rohrbach Concrete, I. LaDuca, Suntex International, Air Products and Chemicals Inc., and PPL also contribute.
Faculty involved in the STEM program represent seven academic disciplines and include Pottenger and Glenn Blank in computer science and engineering, Gary DeLeo (physics), Keith Schray (chemistry), Susan Szczepanski (mathematics), Jennifer Swann (biological sciences), Lynn Columba (education and human services), and Jean Russo (Center for Social Research).
The equipment and technical expertise provided by STEM and NASA and the Mars Yard itself are all a boon to Harrison Morton, says principal Burdette Chapel, but the personal touch provided by Lehigh's students is invaluable.
"Without Lehigh, we could not reach the number of students we're reaching," says Chapel. "Our students really respond well to the Lehigh students. They're close in age and the Lehigh students don't talk down to them. Also, Lehigh's students come here nights and weekends and put in more time than they're required to."
Posted on Tuesday, June 27, 2006