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UT Arlington computer scientist uses assistive robots to fuel youngsters’ minds about science, technology, engineering, mathematics

Friday, April 3, 2015

Media Contact: Herb Booth, Office: 817-272-7075, Cell: 214-546-1082, hbooth@uta.edu

News Topics: education, engineering, robotics, students

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A University of Texas at Arlington computer scientist and his students are using assistive robots to spur the interest of local middle- and high-school students toward STEM.

Gian-Luca Mariottini teaches students.

Gian-Luca Mariottini is spurring students' interest in STEM fields at the Technology Education Academy.

Gian-Luca Mariottini, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has launched the Technology Education Academy, a pilot 12-week, after-school program funded by the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation and in collaboration with the Arlington Public Library and Arlington school district.

The Academy serves eighth- through 12th-graders from some AISD schools at “The Lab” at the East Arlington Branch Library. The Academy lasts through mid-May.

“Different than many existing ‘play-with-robots’ initiatives, the goal of the Technology Education Academy is to use robots and assistive technology to make students passionate about STEM fields,” Mariottini said. “We want to make it fun. At the same time, we also have developed an educational curriculum in collaboration with AISD teacher J. Smeaton to provide students with an practical way of learning about science and mathematics through robots, while exploring teamwork. We want to answer some more fundamental questions, like: Is robotics good to turn you on about STEM?”

Every Tuesday from 5 to 6:30 p.m., Mariottini and his students meet at The Lab to work with several junior high and high school students to create assistive robots and technology.

Carolyn Mentesana, executive director of the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, said the foundation was delighted to play a role in bringing this high-tech program to the community.

“This is a great way to support the great work of Arlington’s educational powerhouses – the University of Texas of Arlington, Arlington Public Libraries and the Arlington Independent School District – and these organization’s dedication to enhancing technical learning,” Mentesana said. “There is a power in hands-on learning in this science and engineering lab. And to have some of UT Arlington’s world-renowned robotics program passed on to these students promises to be very rewarding for them.”

Gustavo Puerto, a UT Arlington doctoral candidate in Mariottini’s Robotics Lab, is playing an active role as a volunteer mentor in one of the students’ teams at the Academy. He said the main ingredient he wants to bring to the program is to let the students have fun and learn about problem solving.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase all the aspects of engineering,” Puerto said. “While today some of my team members are busy building a robot, the other half are exploring problem solving with the intuitive Scratch programming language. The Academy is a fantastic program that helps young people get involved in technology at a very early age.”

Joshua Alvarado, a sophomore at Seguin High School, is one of the participants in the Technology Education Academy.

                                                                                                                              

That part of the program already is producing fruit.

Joshua Alvarado, a sophomore at Seguin High School, said he isn’t positive about engineering but it does pique his interest.

“I like education and I like technology,” Alvarado said. “This seemed like a natural for me. I want to teach something like this in a classroom.”

The answer for sixth-grader Garrett Steinman, who is home schooled, is even simpler.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It tests your brain.”

Marla Boswell, interim community librarian for the East Arlington branch, said the students also learn teamwork in working through assistive-technology projects in teams that are formed at the beginning of each session.

“They also have to turn to their creative sides in many of the exercises,” Boswell said.

The Technology Education Academy is set up in The Lab, which was built at the east branch library with a donation from the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Foundation. The Lab is a place dedicated to junior high and high school students where they can come to study, play video games or use computers that’s set away from the rest of the East Arlington branch.

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 48,000 students around the world and the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as the seventh fastest-growing public research university in 2013. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more, and find UT Arlington rankings and recognition at www.uta.edu/uta/about/rankings.php.

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