A Day for the Next Generation of Roboticists

At the fifth annual Philly Robotics Expo (PRX) on April 20, several hundred local grade-, middle-, and high-school students poured into the Singh Center for Nanotechnology with their machines in tow.

At the fifth annual Philly Robotics Expo (PRX) on April 20, several hundred local grade-, middle-, and high-school students poured into the Singh Center for Nanotechnology with their machines in tow.

The PRX event, part of Philly Tech Week, was hosted by Penn’s GRASP Lab in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Central High School’s high-achieving robotics team, the RoboLancers. Penn and Drexel University each recently donated $20,000 to the team, funding its trip to the national championships of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

The PRX students are part of a growing phenomenon of teaching science, engineering, and team-building skills through robotics competitions. These contests see students construct, program, and fine-tune custom robots that are pitted against one another in a variety of tasks, such as collecting and stacking boxes, or shooting a ball through a target.

At the PRX event, the young roboticists showed off their own creations and watched demonstrations of some of GRASP’s work, including self-assembling, snake-like robots from ModLab and six-legged, all-terrain crawlers from KodLab.

Drexel’s Gabe Carryon and GRASP Lab members Monroe Kennedy and Guiseppe Loianno gave keynote addresses, while Central High School students taught a series of workshops that ran the gamut of skill levels. In the most basic course, attendees built “ArtBots” that made drawings by dragging markers across a page. In the most advanced, students learned the finer points of pulse width modulation, a way of controlling a robot’s speed by controlling the frequency with which its motors receive power.

The GRASP Lab, based in SEAS, has long played a coordinating role in the local youth robotics programs. It is partnered with FIRST LEGO League, a LEGO-based robotics competition for middle-school students, supplying materials, training coaches, and organizing qualifying tournaments throughout the School District of Philadelphia.

  • Text by Evan Lerner
  • Photos by Ishmam Ahmed