Penn State

Dancing robots, engineering opportunities on display at Penn State

Students from Our Lady of Victory watch their robot, “Gladbot,” that they programed with Penn State students do a dance to different gladiator themed music. The Penn State Women in Engineering Program hosted a group of middle school students to show them more about engineering on Thursday.
Students from Our Lady of Victory watch their robot, “Gladbot,” that they programed with Penn State students do a dance to different gladiator themed music. The Penn State Women in Engineering Program hosted a group of middle school students to show them more about engineering on Thursday. adrey@centredaily.com

There’s a woman standing at the front of the classroom and she wants to know what an engineer does.

Considering that said woman is Cheryl Knobloch, the director of Penn State’s Women in Engineering Program, chances are that she already knows exactly what an engineer does — and would really love it if the visiting group of 24 students from Park Forest Middle School, Philipsburg-Osceola Middle School and Our Lady of Victory did too.

They don’t disappoint. A hand is in the air almost before the question has left Knobloch’s lips and the young lady answered without missing a beat.

Engineers solve problems.

Occasionally it’s as simple as teaching a robot how to dance. Other times it’s trickier, like solving issues of gender disparity.

Middle school is typically the time in their academic career when they make the decision, ‘Do I keep going with math or science or do I opt out?’ — and girls typically opt out.

Cheryl Knobloch, director of Penn State’s Women in Engineering Program

Both were on the menu during Thursday’s annual Penn State Women in Engineering Program outreach event. The idea was to pair middle school students interested in the sciences with undergraduate mentors and hope that role modeling ensues.

“Middle school is typically the time in their academic career when they make the decision, ‘Do I keep going with math or science or do I opt out?’ — and girls typically opt out,” Knobloch said.

However on Thursday they were very much in, so much so that exactly 22 of the 24 visiting students were young women.

Their first task was choreographing the last 30 seconds of an elaborate dance routine. Fortunately, the undergraduates had already done a lot of the heavy lifting, having spent five class periods trying to teach a four-wheeled robot how to perform a few basic moves — because rhythm is something you have to be born with — to tunes like “Twist and Shout” and “Dancing Queen.”

More people should definitely do it, it’s fun.

Olivia Adams

Split into teams, the recruits were given a crash course in coding before the entire project culminated with an epic robot dance-off.

“More people should definitely do it, it’s fun,” said Olivia Adams, an eighth-grade student at Park Forest Middle School.

Maria Haddad said that she and the other undergraduates enjoyed getting a sneak peek at the future of their field — even if it takes a while to arrive.

“It was awesome as engineers to see our future engineers do that,” Haddad, a freshman studying mechanical engineering, said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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