By Peter Williams
June 27, 2011
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes cooperation to build a robot.
At least that’s the way Ellis Lawrence views it. Lawrence, a professor in the Elizabeth City State University Technology Department, is in the midst of a four-week Summer Transportation Institute designed to expose students to new fields.
The institute involves 16 high school students from four surrounding counties. The students have already shown an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The $58,000 grant Lawrence landed is designed to take them to the next level.
Lawrence got the idea for the program when he was the mentor to a team of Chowan County students on a robotics team. While students had the drive to build a robot, they lacked a broad range of skills required to complete the job, Lawrence said.
His idea? Expose students directly to the skills necessary to build a robot.
So over the course of a month, students enrolled in the Summer Transportation Institute will visit NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. and the N.C. Department of Transportation testing facility in Williamston.
“Students will be looking at robotics, and will be working with computer programming and computer-aided design,” Lawrence said.
One of the projects will be in unmanned aerial vehicles research.
“When you’re talking about robotics, you’re talking math, science, technology and engineering and they all have to come together,” Lawrence said.
If one student excels at engineering, he or she might tackle that portion of a robotics project while another may focus on the computer programming issues.
The visit to the Naval Research Lab will offer students insights into the latest efforts in unmanned aerial vehicle programs.
All the parts of the summer series, now in its 12th year, tie back to one issue — transportation, Lawrence said.
One year, the workshop had students focus on getting through the ground school portion of earning a private pilot’s license. That year nine of the 16 passed the exam on the first try.
All of the students in the program are rising high school juniors or seniors and all must have a grade-point average of at least 3.0. They come from schools in Camden, Chowan, Pasquotank and Gates counties.
“About 50 percent of the students who go through this program end up enrolling at ECSU,” he said. “What we try and do here is provide the basic skills.”
The grant to pay for the program came from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
Kendell Wilson, a student from Camden High School, worked with a flight simulator one day last week. If the team is going to build a UAV, it’s going to take at least one member of the team with skills to fly it.
Wilson once toyed with the idea of being a pilot, but now wants to be an engineer.
“I want to make things that other people can use and I know that I built it,” Wilson said.
Katie Kammerer, another Camden student, would like a future in criminal scientific investigation and figures the summer seminar at ECSU will give her some background in the field.
Lawrence knows that the students may not end up as an electrical engineer, pilot or chemist, but what they learn over four weeks this summer will at least expose them to how each discipline compliments each other.
He also received funding for four ECSU students to help the high school students. The four will also be responsible for completing assigned projects from the NCDOT. The interns will present their research at the North Department of Transportation at the end of eight weeks in Raleigh.
Over the years Lawrence has received more than $700,000 from the Highway Administration, $60,000 from the NCDOT for internships and $250,000 from NASA as a principal investigator. Lawrence was the co-principal investigator on a $2.5 million NASA grant.