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Bronx High School Students Hone Engineering Skills in Columbia's Robotics Lab


Computer Science senior Matthew Schulkind extends the arm of last year's robot, which won regional competitions in Pittsburgh and New York City.

Standing nearly 6 feet tall, this robotic mass of levers, wires and wheels is the creation of curious and imaginative high school students who chose to spend their Friday nights last year on an Ivy League campus instead of in a movie theater.

The students, from Morris Campus Schools and Bronx Aerospace Academy, were the winners in two regional Olympic-style competitions in which the robot had to complete a special task. They were mentored by Bob Stark, manager of the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory at The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), and Wayne Penn, SEAS '06.

This year, a similar group of 20 high school students is hard at work on a new robot to compete in the next FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology." Every April, about 25,000 high school students on nearly 1,000 teams participate in the competition started by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway personal transport.

This year's group, who call themselves "Robotics for Academic Inspiration," are just one of many student-run campus organizations that have been resourceful and energetic about helping local high school students achieve their goals.

The group works with Morris Campus Schools, the Bronx Aerospace Academy and students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. Mentors are all undergraduates at SEAS who offer their free time to help students like Jonathan Melo, 18, a senior at the Bronx Aerospace Academy.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to watch Monster Garage," Melo said. "So it's a great feeling to come to a university to talk to professors and have them teach me about engineering. Now I can feel more confident about sending an application to Columbia or any other college that offers these programs because I have experience in it."

That's music to the ears of mentor Kesek Janusz, a SEAS sophomore studying mechanical engineering.

"I think it's the most amazing thing how students who didn't know anything come to our campus and learn things like they are doing today," Janusz said recently. "They actually get involved and interested and at least half of them end up studying engineering or a science discipline after their FIRST experience."

Ninth-grade math teacher Stacy Weaver is now in her second year as the program's coordinator for the Bronx Aerospace Academy. During her first year, the Academy's team won the New York Regional Rookie All Star Award.

"Just being exposed to the mentors is really terrific because they get to talk about what it's like to go to college, what it's like majoring in engineering, what it's like preparing for SATs," Weaver said. "And the mentors are able to lend an ear. Morris is a unique school in the South Bronx. I think this gives our students hope, but it also gives them a chance to believe that they can go to a big-time university to major in engineering, which is very demanding."

Morris won both the New York City and Pittsburgh Regional last year and hopes to defend its titles, if not win the competition. With five months before competition starts, these budding engineers will continue their work at the robotics lab in Mudd on Fridays through the rest of this semester and nearly everyday beginning in January.

Their dreams: To win the next competition and to attend a renowned university. It's not out of the question: One student from Morris Campus Schools has already been accepted at Columbia.

For more information, contact Wayne Penn at wrp2003@columbia.edu or visit the Robotics for Academic Inspiration at www.2trainrobotics.com.


Published: Nov 21, 2005
Last modified: Jun 19, 2006

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