by Alan Bisbort
In the past year, students in Fairfield’s School of Engineering have learned that it takes a village to build a robot. That village extends from the Fairfield campus to Warren G. Harding High School in Bridgeport, and includes students, faculty and staff at both institutions as well as off-site supporters and alumni. It all began in December 2015 when Emily Yale ’18, a mechanical engineering major from Branford, learned about a crisis brewing 10 miles away at Harding High.
Specifically, the Harding robotics team was on the verge of folding due to lack of mentors, which meant that their collective dream of taking part in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) that following March would be over. FIRST, an organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to encourage leadership in science and technology, now sponsors competitions in which 400,000 students take part each year.
“I was contacted in the middle of final exams in December and I made my decision very quickly because I knew I was in a position to do something about this,” said Yale, who had competed in the robotics competition while a student at Guilford High School, an experience she credits with showing her “what I wanted to do with my life.”
For the next three months, Yale and seven other Fairfield undergraduates volunteered to spend three days a week and two hours per day serving as hands-on mentors to the Harding team, coached by their science teacher, Jill Mahan.
“FIRST mentoring has different shades,” said Yale, vice president of the campus Society of Automotive Engineers Club. “For Harding High School, we were doing a lot of teaching — everything from how to turn a wrench to actual engineering concepts. It was an interesting school dynamic, extremely different from my Guilford High School experience, but we were only a couple of years older than the students.”
The end result was a robot built within the six-week deadline to the exacting specifications contained in FIRST’s 120-page rulebook. The wheeled 120-pound machine, programmed to perform pre-set tasks, was successfully entered in regional competitions in March and April.
The experience had other benefits, too. Students at Harding High gained self-confidence and technical skills while Fairfield students were grateful for the experience to be of service to others in the spirit of the University’s Jesuit tradition. The University has now formalized the program with a course that will run in Spring 2017, which incorporates the mentoring of Harding High’s new robotics team into the curriculum.
Ryan Munden, Phd, associate dean of Fairfield’s School of Engineering, created the course and pushed for its inclusion as an elective.
“A year ago, we were thinking of a way to do service learning with engineering. That is, to build socially responsible engineers,” said Munden. “Everybody loves robotics, so we proposed to create an ongoing class to mentor robotics programs. The students at the high school are given a completely open problem, one that’s not hypothetical, and they have to come up with a solution on their own. This is far better than book learning. It builds camaraderie and passion.”
All through this process, Robert Sobolewski ’70 was cheering from the sidelines and sometimes offering far more than moral support. As chair of the School of Engineering Advisory Council, Sobolewski has been instrumental in getting Fairfield involved with robotics on a number of fronts. The retired CEO of ebm-papst, a world leader in motor engineering, has been a long-time supporter of the FIRST program, as chair of the organization’s Connecticut Executive Advisory Board. He harbors no futuristic fantasies about robotic overlords.
“Robots are just a vehicle to get kids interested in science and technology,” said Sobolewski. “I saw that our kids in the U.S. were not doing as well in these areas as the kids in Europe and Asia, and it was really a wake-up call.”
In a way, today’s Fairfield undergraduates have a leg up on Sobolewski. When he was an undergraduate, robots were the stuff of science fiction and the University was an all-male school with no engineering department or courses (the School of Engineering started in 1994). Sobolewski, in fact, got his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.
“My engineering expertise was all acquired on the job, which was the only way for a liberal arts major to learn it,” he said. “As a young man at Fairfield, my eyes were open to the future and I didn’t realize this Jesuit ethic was being instilled in me at the time. It was not so much in the classroom as in the atmosphere of giving back.”
And so Sobolewski sees the FIRST competitions as a great opportunity for outreach by the School of Engineering.
“We have 40 teams in New England competing in 10 different FIRST competitions,” he said. “Putting up an informational booth at these events has been a great recruiting tool for the University.”
Even more important is the wider national push for STEM.
“Engineering is one of the biggest drivers of the economy,” said Munden. “There are