Technology

Professor, Alumnus Help Elementary Students Build Robots to Help Older Adults

By Michele McDonald

Using a Lego robot to flip flags, fetch a toy dog, or balance on a ramp may seem like kid’s stuff, but the science behind it eventually could lead to robots that help older adults.

And some Virginia elementary school students are getting a step up in learning how to program and build a robot as part of the First Lego League competition.

Coach Kent Pankratz (right), assistant coach Bichquyen Nguyen (center), and Professor Andrew Guccione (left), pose with LEGO People Epic Transitions, or L'PET, team members and their research posters for their robotics project. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Coach Kent Pankratz (right), assistant coach Bichquyen Nguyen (center), and Mason professor Andrew Guccione (left) pose with LEGO People Epic Transitions, or L’PET, team members and their research posters for their robotics project. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders consulted with Mason researcher Andrew Guccione, chair of Mason’s Department of Rehabilitation Science, to find out what problems older adults encounter and how robots can help. As part of the competition, the team created a poster detailing geriatric health needs and designed a robot to help older adults stand, fetch items, and do other tasks.

“They really did an incredible job of explaining their background research,” Guccione says of the work. “I had to ask myself, ‘Can my graduate students do this with such ease?’”

The six-member team won a regional tournament award for best research project presentation last month and an invitation to compete in the state tournament along with 49 other teams from across Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Teammates shows off their work before heading to the state championship. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Teammates Parth Raut and Hayden Ko show off their work before heading to the state championship. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Team members Dylan Bui, Ishan Kalburge, Joy Chung, Parth Raut, and Yullee Moon all attend Willow Springs Elementary School in Fairfax. Hayden Ko goes to Centreville Elementary School. Mason alumnus Kent Pankratz, MBA ’00, a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, coaches the team with assistant coach Bichquyen Nguyen.

“I thought it would be really cool to make a robot that helps older people,” says Chung, a fifth-grader. Her grandparents don’t need any help, but she thinks about how robots could make life better for senior citizens.“I thought it would be really sad if they couldn’t walk or hear or move,” Chung says. “I thought it would be great if our robot would help senior citizens.”

Team members demonstrate their robots as the mentors look on. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Team members demonstrate their robots as the mentors look on. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

A fan of Legos, Moon’s older brother was on Coach Pankratz’s FLL team the past two years, so she decided to give it a try. The fourth-grader plans to build more robots in the future after finding out they’re more than a toy.

“When I was researching, I learned that older people don’t have fast reactions, and they break their bones,” Moon says. “A robot can help.”

While the team designed a robot to give the elderly a hand, they compete with a standard robot from Lego Mindstorms. They had to program the robot to complete specific tasks, such as fetching a toy Lego dog, completing a Lego-block quilt, and flipping a flag, all within tight time constraints.

Pankratz borrowed from the World War II adventure movie The Dirty Dozen to help the team prepare for the event. They chant their tasks to rehearse before the competition. Because these kids aren’t so dirty, Pankratz laughs and says, “We call them ‘The Clean Half-Dozen.’”

Helpful robots could be appearing in the marketplace in the next decade, Guccione says. “A lot of people think that robots have to be humanoid-looking,” he says. “That’s a little far-fetched.”

Guccione discussed the basics of function and movement with the team. One of the biggest challenges for older adults is simply getting out of a chair and not falling back to sitting, he says. The team studied the process of going from sitting to standing, using scientific analysis to develop a solution.

“This is something we go through in our PhD program,” Guccione says.

Pankratz, who works with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Defense Sciences Office Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, knows how quickly advances are being made on the robotic front. Putting the know-how into young minds could yield huge benefits in the future.

In addition to the mentoring from Guccione, the team visited the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to learn more about robots from a team that built a prosthetic arm system for the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. They also visited the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to learn what it takes to get devices approved for use with patients.

“I would be shocked if one of these kids did not go on to be a scientist,” Guccione says. “These kids, no matter what they do, will go on to be successful. The fact that they can think across generations and want to help people through science and technology bodes well for humanity.”

This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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