UA, industry use robotics to promote engineering among less privileged students

December 21, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

UA, Industry Use Robotics to Promote Engineering Among Less Privileged Students

Students racing

Students at the 2009 Summer Engineering Robotics Camp get ready for a robot street race outside the UA Engineering Building.

The MEP program also gives one professor an opening to develop beneficial relationships with private industry.

Nearly 200 middle school and high school students attended this summer’s engineering academy and robotics camp, which are part of the University of Arizona College of Engineering‘s Multicultural Engineering Program, or MEP. Parents are already clamoring to enroll their kids in next year’s summer engineering schools.

“We had 119 high school students for the Summer Engineering Academy and 73 middle school students for the Summer Engineering Robotics Camp,” said Ray Umashankar, assistant dean and MEP director.

The summer programs are open to students from all backgrounds, but the MEP aims to attract Hispanic and American Indian students, particularly from underprivileged economic backgrounds. “We awarded almost $20,000 in scholarships to students who really wanted to attend the program,” Umashankar said.

About half of the students received scholarships, typically covering 25 percent or 50 percent of the registration fee. “We ask parents to pay a minimal amount so that they feel they have a stake in the program,” Umashankar said.

The programs are completely funded by student registration fees and by grants from foundations, industry and other organizations. In his hunt to secure funding – not only for the summer programs, but also for other programs related to incoming freshmen – Umashankar is known to aggressively reach out to technology and engineering companies. Unlike the authors of irritating junk mail, however, he carefully selects his corporate targets before making an unsolicited approach to a senior executive.

One such shot in the dark recently netted 3,000 USB flash drives and started a promising relationship between the UA College of Engineering and a new industry sponsor.

Umashankar and colleagues in the academic affairs department had concerns about the amount of material being stuffed into the hands of incoming freshmen, and whether that material actually made it home for further study.

Academic Dean Jim Baygents suggested putting the material on a USB drive, but a quick check at the University Bookstore revealed that drives of the requisite capacity would cost $30,000.

Umashankar knew that SanDisk manufactured flash memory products such as USB drives and chose to contact the CEO. “I got lucky. SanDisk reviewed my request and then asked me how many I needed.”

Incoming freshmen will now get all their information on a SanDisk USB drive, and Summer Engineering Academy students keep their presentations and designs on the drives.

“There is an ingrained philosophy of giving at SanDisk, whether through hours of volunteer service, cash contributions or product donations,” said Manish Bhatia, vice president for strategic programs at SanDisk. “After hearing about the University’s efforts to expose disadvantaged youths to engineering, we put this request ahead of the hundreds we receive every year.”

Part of Umashankar’s success at building relationships with industry sponsors can be attributed to empathy. “As part of this fundraising that I do,” he said.

Both Umashankar and SanDisk are happy with the arrangement so far and want the relationship with UA to grow over time. Ultimately, Umashankar envisions the relationship having three strands: joint research between UA and SanDisk, internships at SanDisk for UA students and SanDisk’s recruitment of engineering graduates.

To this end, SanDisk has started working with associate professor Young-Jun Son and his students in the department of systems and industrial engineering. Son’s award-winning industrial engineering research group excels at the planning and control of manufacturing operations, a subject very close to SanDisk’s heart, not to mention its bottom line.

Partnerships like this are essential to the future of engineering. Umashankar estimates that more than 80 percent of summer engineering students go on to enroll in undergraduate engineering programs. However, summer students have not necessarily decided where their professional futures lie. “I find that a lot of students are undecided about college and simply want to learn about what fields are out there,” Umashankar said. “Some already know they want to be engineers, but they don’t know how to get there.”

Recruiting more engineering students will require a lot more outreach in schools. Before enrollment in the summer schools, Umashankar interviews potential students and hears the same story time after time. “Many kids say they have thought about law or medicine, but most of them have never considered engineering because they didn’t really know anything about it.”

Umashankar is clear about the origin of engineering’s low profile. “The biggest problem is the high schools. If a counselor finds that a student is good at math, they tell that student to go get a degree in math. Too few counselors recommend engineering. This is a huge problem.”