More than 300 elementary and middle-school students from 34 schools in Allegheny County met at Duquesne University on March 5 to design their own robots during the STEM Design Challenge featuring K’Nex.

The challenge issued to the students by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) of the Pennsylvania Department of Education was to design and build robots that would help address some real-life problem and thereby help create a healthier, safer, and cleaner world. The Hatfield-based toy company K’Nex, known for their construction sets, regularly offers students and educators a chance to get in on the action of designing new toys and donated all the materials from its product line for the event.

The winning team in the 4th–5th grade division—Jocelyn O’Neill, Sean Bright, Aiden Meininger, Joi Burleigh, and Aggie Li—hails from Shaffer Elementary School in Pittsburgh. Their winning robot, the E.S.R. (Endangered Species Rescuer) 3000, is designed to locate, rescue, and safely transport injured, endangered species to a rehabilitation center. Mitchell Bentley, Brian Duggan, Makayla Miller, and Nicholas Nazak from David E. Williams Middle School in Coraopolis, about 10 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, placed first in the 6th–8th grade division with their Spartan Sweep, which collects garbage and puts it in a storage bin.

Robotics design is a natural fit for Pittsburgh-area students, coming as they do from one of the robotic capitals of the United States. The Robot Hall of Fame (RHOF) was founded in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Sciences as an online museum to inspire an appreciation for and exploration of robotic technology. The RHOF has grown as it has pursued its mission and now houses the largest permanent exhibition of robotics in the world. Students involved in the STEM Design Challenge might have participated in the online voting for 2012 inductees to the RHOF, tipping the scales in favor of WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class), the charming computer-generated robot and title character of the 2008 Disney/Pixar animated film that won in the Entertainment division—and could have been a worthy contender in the STEM Design Challenge!

Further, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute is a leader in robotics education, offering the first of only three doctoral degree programs in robotics the world. The Robotics Institute is part of our network and sponsors at least three robotics projects: the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy, ReefBot, and Romibo.

The Robotics Academy’s educational outreach aims to get students excited about science and technology, and is coming up with its own competitions to encourage invention among future roboticists. Its newest competition is a tribute to Earth Day called “Energy Boss”, in which students decide how to marshal the world’s energy resources. The competition is driven and judged by students themselves, offering the kind of experiential learning for which Pittsburgh is becoming known.

Romibo is bringing researchers and community members together to collaborate on designing therapeutic robots for children with physical and developmental disabilities. Romibo is a robotic pet that can help children with socialization, delighting them with its friendly behavior and cuddly fur covering. Its open-source development provides users with an affordable way to create and own a Romibo of their own, moving collaboration and innovation to a whole new level.