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February 23, 2020
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The University of Cincinnati wants to inspire more high school students to pursue careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering or math.
The National Science Foundation awarded UC a $1.2 million grant for a new program in which high school seniors will build smart robots that use custom sensors based on animal behavior and abilities. The three-year program will show students how a collaboration between biology and engineering can inspire new ideas.
The goal is to increase diversity in STEM fields, said Stephanie Rollmann, a professor in UC’s Department of Biological Sciences who is overseeing the project. Rollman’s research examines the genetic and neurobiological bases of insect behavior.
“It started with having Biology Day in our department with Hughes STEM High School,” Rollmann said. “We started to write this grant application to increase awareness and participation among underrepresented groups in engineering and biology.”
Also overseeing the transdisciplinary grant are John Layne, Kathie Maynard, Bridgette Peteet and Dieter Vanderelst, faculty members from UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services and College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Teachers and about two-dozen students from public schools in Cincinnati and the surrounding neighborhoods Mount Healthy and Sharonville will be invited to the three-week biology-meets- engineering camp starting next summer. Students also will be eligible for college-credit courses and workshops during their senior year. Afterward, they will be eligible for paid internships.
Women and some racial and ethnic minorities comprise a disproportionately small percentage of employed scientists and engineers in the United States, according to the NSF. Women and men graduate in equal numbers in science majors but fewer women are employed in science or engineering occupations.
“We’re trying to address the whys of it,” said Peteet, a UC psychology professor. “If you don’t have representation in a STEM field, you don’t see that as an option for yourself. So it’s important to see what career options are available.”
Peteet said one study suggests girls and boys react differently upon getting C’s on exams.
“The boys said, ‘Great, I’m average,’ but the girls said, ‘This is hard. I can’t do it,’” Peteet said. “The perception of performance was much different. You have to recognize that this is not something that comes naturally to everyone. You have to build a foundation.”
Helen Meyer, who teaches secondary science education in UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services, said it’s important to introduce STEM careers to children at a young age.
“There is research evidence to demonstrate that early exposure to interesting and real science does attract and retain students into those careers,” Meyer said. “Giving youth the opportunity to see how science and STEM professionals work on real problems can significantly address the issues of school science being too removed from their lives.”
The students in the summer program will work on a project that combines biology and engineering. Students will learn how animals perceive the world so they can outfit robots with sensors that adopt cues from nature for navigation, perception or tasks.
It’s similar to work that Vanderelst, a professor in UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science, has been working on in his lab. He is helping to coordinate the new high school program.
“Bio-inspired flight is a hot topic right now. We’ve already covered birds. Now we’re looking at bats,” Vanderelst said.
“There are a lot of examples: snakelike and fishlike robots. Soft robots that are squishy,” he said. “They’ve started to work on these swarms made of thousands of tiny robots, inspired by the way microorganisms organize themselves. There are a lot of examples.”
Students will have a chance to apply for summer internships at UC and its program partners, the engineering firm Festo Didactic, Inc., and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
“We are looking forward to working with UC to support the interest of area youth in their pursuit of STEM careers,” said Dan Marsh, the zoo’s director of education.
Automation innovator Festo is in the process of adding 400 new positions to its facility in Mason, Ohio, spokesman Andreas Brockman said. The company’s engineers experiment with new designs by taking cues from nature. For example, they built robots that fly like bats, hop like kangaroos or undulate through the water like cuttlefish.
Not every animal-like robot leads to huge advances, but many do. The company’s engineering division designs and markets more than 100 new products for global factories every year, Brockman said.
“We want to get young people interested in science,” Brockman said. “There are cool jobs out there. Manufacturing isn’t dirty and loud like it was a generation ago.”
Layne, a professor of biological sciences in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, said they created the new summer program with an eye toward appealing to students who are on the fence about pursuing science as a career. Layne and his students have been studying the incredible navigational abilities of fiddler crabs, which map out every step and turn they make to find their way back to the same hole in the sand.
“A lot went into trying to think of what would be cool. What might appeal to a kid that age?” he said.
Robots and animals appeal to a lot of people. And this would let the professors touch on physics, math and other sciences in a relatable way, he said.
Maynard, associate dean of UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services, said the program helps to put UC President Neville Pinto’s strategic plan, Next Lives Here, into action to improve the lives of Cincinnati high school students.
“You create the inspiration that leads to aspiration,” Maynard said, “and then it’s all about preparation and hard work.”
Featured image above: UC student Allison Ng, a member of Women in Science and Enginering, examines a lab sample. Photo/Dottie Stover/UC Creative Services