"Robots on the Road" Demonstrates Mars Rovers’ Work is Children’s Play

Mars rover Spirit"Where can I get one of these?" is the most often asked question by children playing with miniature robots built to resemble NASA’s six-wheeled, one-armed rovers on Mars.

To educate the next generation of explorers, NASA took its science and robots on the road. It’s a travelling program called "Robots on the Road" (ROTR), sponsored by NASA's Aerospace Education Services Project, which gives children hands-on experience working with robots and introduces them to the math and science behind space exploration. The exhibit visited NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. from July 29 – 31, 2009.

"Since our June 2008 kickoff, I’ve been amazed by how many kids show up to play with these robots. We used commercial kits to build motorized robots that are programmed to do different tasks, like finding and sorting items, and mapping paths around objects. Kids love playing with them," said Taunya Sweet, a Pennsylvania State University employee and a travelling education specialist for the program.

As part of the learning process, children are asked to imagine tiny robots, named Spirit and Opportunity, travelling wide stretches of Mars, climbing cliffs, mapping terrains and sorting, cracking and grinding colorful rocks, with the sole purpose of finding water.

In two days, more than 400 children arrived at the exhibit, ready to explore. The display is open and inviting to kids, with eight robots available for discovery and exploration.

Children are handed a robot and asked to identify its tasks by watching its actions. Some robots manipulate and sort items; others map paths and navigate around obstacles. But to understand how robots operate, youngsters need to use problem-solving, team building, and critical thinking skills, which simulate those skills used by NASA scientists and engineers.

"The program gives kids hands-on experience with robots, which we hope will increase their science and math awareness and understanding of the mechanics used to study or explore space," said Sweet.

Robots on the Road will provide programs with the travelling NASA Exploration Experience. Unlike its travelling partner, Robots on the Road is available for classroom programs. Classroom robots provide standards-based instruction for students in the areas of inquiry-based learning, mathematics and science.

Teachers can request a Robot on the Road school visit by completing a request form found at http://aesp.psu.edu/wheels.cfm. Requests will be filled depending upon the current availability and location of the Robots on the Road van.

"We will attempt to visit as many states as possible during the year. In January, we hope to go into the southern regions, where we can visit other NASA centers, including Johnson, Stennis and Marshall," said Sweet.

Besides the occasional groan heard from parents, when they realize that their child will want the robot kit for their birthdays, parents are very receptive to the program. Many adults have never seen this kind of robotics technology.

"I often hear kids tell their parents when they leave the exhibit: 'Mom, I really want one of these,'" said Sweet.

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