Professor Webb teaches fifth graders robotics


By Ethan Pearce

“That’s one small step for man …”

It was actually a fifth grader from Columbus Magnet School in Norwalk, Conn., who took those brave first steps in a simulated space mission that featured key behind-the-scenes support from Union Professor Nick Webb.

Webb, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, recently visited the elementary school to assist the 14 Young Astronauts in what was the first robotic mission in the school’s history.

Showing the kind of enthusiasm that he has consistently displayed in Union offerings such as “The History of Computing” and “Natural Language Processing,” Webb quickly became a favorite of the fifth graders, who peppered him with questions about programming and remote robotic access.

When initially approached about this project last summer, Webb jumped at the opportunity to help these youngsters navigate the seemingly esoteric world of robotics.

“I got a call from Zach Pearce ’12 who asked me if I could lend a hand in a program that he, himself, had been part of when he was in fifth grade,” Webb recently recalled in an interview. “Zach gushed about how the Young Astronaut Program awakened an interest in science in him, and wondered if I could add a new wrinkle, as he put it.”

The new wrinkle was robotics, a subject that is very special to Webb.

“As robots and robotics become more ubiquitous, people will be adjusting to, among other things, the social implications of human-robot interaction,” Webb explained.

Working with elementary school children was an opportunity for Webb to disprove some of the fallacies about robotics while also illustrating some basics of computer programming.

Webb was eager to add Columbus Magnet School to his outreach efforts; he already teaches a basic robotics course to Schenectady fifth graders.

The Young Astronaut Council was established by the White House in 1984 to promote interest in the key components of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The program uses space as the underlying theme, an area to which children naturally gravitate.

Although there are many chapters throughout the United States, Columbus Magnet School is the only one that pushes the envelope by training its fifth graders for a 24-hour, simulated mission, complete with pressure-suited astronauts and tech-savvy mission controllers.

Each year’s mission explores a different destination and a different theme. The target this year was an ambitious voyage to the moon, where the fifth graders would deploy a robotic rover, not unlike the rovers that are now exploring the Martian surface.

Named “Terra Nova” by the students, the mission, with its robot-human interface, proved to be a new world for all involved.

Webb brought a four-wheeled robot, christened “Curi” by the students in honor of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Festooned with Union stickers, Curi was the centerpiece of the 24-hour mission.

Visiting Connecticut three times to help train the Columbus astronauts in the basics of robotics and the particulars of Curi, Webb was an instant hit with the fifth graders.

After receiving extensive hands-on training with Webb, Program Manager Ella Valiante summarized her experience in words that still resonate with the professor. “Nick showed me that computer programming and robotics can be fun.”

Valiante’s role in the mission was a duplicate of what would be seen at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

“Thanks to Professor Webb, I now think I would actually like to work at JPL,” Valiante continued.

Indeed, it was the familiarity with robotics that made a subsequent Skype call to JPL that much more rewarding.

The Columbus Young Astronauts chatted with Attitude Control Engineer Steve Collins, the man responsible for navigating Curiosity across the 34 million miles of open space to its precise landing on the red planet.

Fifth-grader Bismaad Gulati, whose role in Terra Nova replicated Collins’, described Webb’s help in being able to converse with the number-two person at JPL: “Nick taught me a lot. Thanks to him, I knew I could speak with Mr. Collins and sound pretty intelligent.”

At the conclusion of the mission, parents and other relatives gathered in front of a realistic mock-up of a lunar module to greet the astronauts and controllers upon the successful completion of the mission.

Local dignitaries applauded the fifth graders, giving short speeches of appreciation.

When Webb was introduced as “Curi’s father”, the group, led by the appreciative students, roared its approval.

“Amazing. Just amazing,” was all Webb could say. “I’m just glad I could help out.”

As he packed up Curi to return to Schenectady, Capsule Communicator Rachel Lasky ran up to Webb, gave him a heartfelt hug and exclaimed, “When I’m older, I want to go to Union and have you as one of my professors.”


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