Scouting Out Tomorrow's Robotics Leaders


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Scouting Out Tomorrows Robotics Leaders - Students

For those concerned about the shortage of future engineering talent in the United States: have no fear, the Boy Scouts are here. And thanks to the Scouts' newest tech-focused merit badge, a new generation of better, faster, and smarter robots might be close on their heels.

Introduced in April 2011, the new badge places robotics among such vaunted "be prepared" skills as first aid, bugling, and citizenship. It's the 31st in a growing list of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related educational programs in the Scouts' merit badge universe, and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) estimates 10,000 kids will earn the badge in its first year.

"I think it is fantastic that the Boy Scouts are encouraging this type of learning," says Oliver G. Youst, a physics professor who advises aspiring robotics engineers at New York's Jefferson Community College. "Robotics is an ideal choice in exposing kids to modern technology."

Youst, whose teams compete annually at the Two-Year Engineering Science Robotics competition and the American Association of Engineering Educators national robotics competitions, says the availability of the Internet and the low price of microcontrollers, sensors, and other electronics has put fairly complex designs within reach of kids with introductory skill levels.

Scouting Out Tomorrows Robotics Leaders - Students

The robotics merit badge.

"The robotics merit badge is an example of how Scouting remains true to its roots to help young people be prepared," says BSA Chief Scout Executive Bob Mazzuca. "While the guiding principles of Scouting—service to others, leadership, personal achievement, and respect for the outdoors—will never change, we continue to adapt programs to prepare young people for success in all areas of life."

Scouting Out Tomorrows Robotics Leaders - Students

Photo courtesy of parallax.com.

So what does a scout have to do to earn the distinction of roboticist in training? Quite a lot, it turns out. The BSA says the average scout will spend 14 hours working toward the badge, including time spent designing and demonstrating a functioning robot with at least two degrees of freedom. Scouts can use a commercial kit of sufficient complexity such as the Ollo Bug, the Parallax Boe-Bot, Vex, or LEGO Mindstorm sets, which run anywhere from $99 to $300. Do-it-Yourselfers can satisfy the robot-building requirement on the cheap by repurposing their old remote-controlled cars or boats, but the modifications must be extensive to earn the badge.

The BSA spent more than a year getting input on the requirements from scouts, scout leaders, private industry, academics, and government agencies such as NASA. They came up with criteria meant to demonstrate a scout's technical grasp of the human-robot interface, mobility, manipulation, programming and sensing technology, and robotics safety. Equally prominent in the requirements is research on current robotics applications and careers. Scouts must select a particular career path of interest to them and provide detailed information about education, training, and experience required to land a similar job.

That kind of preparation is music to the ears of Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini, who sees too few American kids getting the kind of early, positive exposure to STEM disciplines they need in the vital K-12 school years. "This nation is at risk of a significant shortfall of qualified experts in science and math to meet the country's needs," Otellini said at an August 31 session of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness in Portland, OR.

Joined by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and a host of business leaders and U.S. engineering deans, Otellini called for more public and public-private initiatives focused promoting the "specialized skills needed for America to retain its technological pre-eminence."

To retain leadership in a global market in which India and China graduate nearly 10 times more engineers, the U.S. "must train and retain the world's best engineers," Chu said. Although not directly connected to the council's workforce initiatives, the Boy Scouts' robotics program answers the Obama administration's call to address the engineering shortage by graduating thousands more engineers per year.

Youst says robotics is an ideal way to bring kids into the field. "It teaches them mechanical, electrical, and computer skills, but more importantly it develops design creativity at an early age in a fun and rewarding way," he says.

"The amazing thing is that with robotics, a kid can go from an idea to designing and building an autonomous system that actually does something it was intended to do," he adds. "Robotics projects can encourage team work, independent research, and thought. It is only limited by the kids' drive and imagination."

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

I think it is fantastic that the Boy Scouts are encouraging this type of learning. Robotics is an ideal choice in exposing kids to modern technology.

Oliver G. Youst, professor, Jefferson Community College

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December 2011

by Michael MacRae, ASME.org