ARTICLE BY OLIVIA GRIDER | PHOTOS BY MATTHEW WOOD, ZACH RIGGINS AND ELLEN JOHNSON
Joe Kabalin leads the only collegiate engineering team that has won NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition three years in a row, but that distinction isn’t what he’ll remember most about his experience with the Alabama Astrobotics team. The University of Alabama senior majoring in mechanical engineering says his most meaningful work was modifying a child’s electric vehicle for a preschooler named Justin who has femur-fibula-ulna syndrome. The condition causes abnormalities in the long bones of the arms and legs, so Justin has limited range of motion and struggles with mobility.
Kabalin and three other members of the Astrobotics team presented the vehicle to Justin on April 14, 2017, the day before his fifth birthday.
“He can actually play at recess now without having peers or teachers push him around in a stroller,” Kabalin says. “He can have some independence. He’s a very happy, bubbly guy. But you can see he gets frustrated sometimes with his limitations.”
The Alabama Astrobotics team is comprised of 61 UA students majoring in engineering fields as well as disciplines including math, physics, education, business and geology.
UA students can earn academic credit for up to two semesters through ECE 491/591 Special Topics: Alabama Astrobotics. The elective is customized for each student, with assignments ranging from mechanical and electrical design to software development, participation in outreach activities and engineering documentation.
Improving space exploration
Each year, the team enters the NASA Robotic Mining Competition, which challenges college-student teams to build robots capable of navigating and excavating soil on Mars. The team won the contest in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017, besting 40 to 50 other institutions each year.
Judges evaluate robots based on how much soil they can dig and deposit into bins in 10 minutes and on their ability to operate autonomously, without human input via a controller. Alabama Astrobotics is the only team in the country capable of a fully autonomous 10-minute run, Kabalin says. “The autonomy is really something NASA is looking for,” he says. “It allows the robot to take care of itself.”
In 2016, the team began competing in another NASA contest – the Sample Return Robot Challenge, which tasks citizen inventors with designing robots that can autonomously locate, collect and return rock samples to a starting point. The Alabama Astrobotics robot completed the Level 1 challenge faster than any other, and the team was one of only five to advance to Level 2 of the competition.
According to NASA, both contests are helping the agency develop robots that can work alongside and independent of astronauts, improving future space exploration.
Outreach at home
While they’re often focused on the extraterrestrial, members of the Alabama Astrobotics team also spend significant time making Earth a better place – by sharing their knowledge and using it to benefit others.
To help address a shortage of professionals needed to fill jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and to introduce kids to careers they might not have considered, team members concentrate outreach efforts on West Alabama children, many of whom attend underfunded schools that struggle to expose kids to STEM-related projects. The team engages children with interactive and hands-on activities through events ranging from “Engineering Days” and career expos to robot demonstrations and a statewide robotics competition for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.
From 2014 to 2016, the team led weekly STEM activities for third and fourth graders at University Place Elementary School in Tuscaloosa. In Spring 2017, the Alabama Astrobotics team began partnering with the Rise School, which serves young children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome and other disabilities, as well as their typically developing peers.
Team members assist teachers each week and are working to redesign classroom and playground materials, toys and other items to make them suitable for children with physical limitations.
“We felt it was important to give back to the community in many different ways,” says Annie Hubbard, a freshman from Aurora, Ill., majoring in aerospace engineering and the Astrobotics team’s 2017 outreach leader. “It helps us continue to understand that engineering isn’t trying to win a competition; engineering is bettering the world for everyone.”
In 2016-2017, members of the Alabama Astrobotics team devoted more than 750 hours to boosting interest in STEM fields, reaching approximately 10,000 children, parents and teachers. The group has taught STEM-based lessons to third and fourth graders (approximately 125 children) at University Place Elementary over the past three years. In Spring 2017, 15 UA students assisted at the Rise School, working with 45 children and their teachers.
While helping children with activities at the Rise School, UA students note environmental elements that present challenges for those with disabilities and think about ways to improve kids’ mobility and quality of life. One child, for instance, was denied insurance coverage for a wheel chair because she couldn’t get into it by herself, says Rebecca Sedlak, a senior from Montgomery, Ala., majoring in aerospace engineering. Members of the Astrobotics team will design a lift giving her that ability. Other projects include modifying tricycles and swings so children can’t fall off of them and adding cushioning to toys.
Like Kabalin, several members of the Astrobotics team plan to create senior design projects inspired by their work at the Rise School.
At University Place Elementary, UA students have created and implemented lessons, helped teachers present science and math curriculum and led Genius Hour, a program in which kids work in small groups to devise and build their own STEM-related projects. The Astrobotics team also takes its robot to the school so kids can operate it and ask questions.
“I love engineering and think it’s very important to a lot of aspects of life,” says Sedlak, who served as the Astrobotics team’s outreach leader in 2015 and 2016. “Getting to communicate that to kids was especially enjoyable.”
A lot of third graders hate math and science, Sedlak says, and think they’re not smart enough in these areas to have careers in technology. She says she tells the kids she was just like them. “It was cool getting to show them the robot and teach them about simple machines, wheels and pulleys,” Sedlak says. “They start seeing those things in the robot. Soon, they understand how the robot works and they realize engineering is something they can do.”
Brian Rose, assistant principal at University Place Elementary, says the partnership with Alabama Astrobotics gives kids at the school an opportunity to interact with career-minded young people and provides teachers with irreplaceable classroom support.
“The UA students come to our school each week to conduct classroom demonstrations and lessons and explain or model the engineering process,” he says. “They also bring the requisite skill set and level of expertise to enhance our daily instruction while simultaneously serving as role models for the future scientists and mathematicians we are trying to create.”
Working with the kids benefits UA students as well. Sedlak says her outreach experiences virtually erased her fear of public speaking and taught her to effectively explain her work to people without engineering backgrounds. “It really is important that we be able to communicate what we do,” she says, “and that is a struggle for many engineers. I learned to be comfortable doing that and to do it without over-complicating things.”
During Genius Hour, individual kids in groups of three or four often have vastly different ideas about how to complete the same project or tackle one problem, Kabalin says, and UA students have to guide them. “We had to figure out what pieces of each person’s plan to use to create the best overall plan,” he says. “It gave us insight into how we could do this with our own groups now and when we’re on teams in our careers.”
Hubbard says coordinating outreach activities for the Astrobotics team has solidified her desire to work with government entities as an advocate for STEM in education. “Without clear communication, nothing can be done well,” she says. “I enjoy public relations and look forward to where this can take me.”
To learn more about the Alabama Astrobotics Team, contact Dr. Kenneth Ricks, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and team advisor, at 205- 348-9777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.