Having demonstrated that robots can effectively teach math, science and engineering to Brooklyn youngsters, Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) set up in Washington, D.C., this past weekend to take its message to a national audience: the 250,000 visitors of the inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo on the National Mall.

The NYU-Poly exhibit, “Mechatronics Mania,” is one of only 15 chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its display for the grand finale in a two-week celebration designed to re-invigorate youngsters’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Led by Vikram Kapila, associate professor of mechanical engineering and one of the founders of NYU-Poly’s successful robotics and mechatronics outreach program, NYU-Poly team members will use small robots to demonstrate techniques that raised the letter grades and skills of students in Brooklyn’s economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The robots are no substitutes for teachers. Instead, teachers and NYU-Poly doctoral fellows employ the kid-friendly robots to encourage students to learn the math and science that they will need to succeed in STEM subjects and careers. “Well before college, students must learn abstract algebraic and statistical concepts; they must be able to interpret graphs, solve problems and understand measurement methods,” Kapila said. “These seem to be unrelated to their everyday experiences…until they try to perform simple tasks with a LEGO robot.”

In 2007, two members of what is now the Brooklyn Community Foundation urged NYU-Poly’s Kapila and Noel Kriftcher to create the Central Brooklyn Robotics Initiative (CBRI) and provided seed funding. Today, CBRI and a companion Graduate K-12 (GK-12) Fellows program supported by the NSF pairs teachers from 18 economically disadvantaged elementary, middle and high schools with doctoral fellows from NYU-Poly’s engineering programs to design dynamic, hands-on classroom lessons. NYU-Poly fellows and teachers spend summer recesses training in mechatronics and robotics, developing research and hands-on lessons. When school resumes, the fellows and teachers continue their partnership, bringing robotics projects to life with students and exposing them to tools and techniques used by scientists and engineers.

CBRI has a profound and measurable impact on students, according to the program’s external evaluation. For example, in spring 2010, teachers reported changes in letter grades for 810 students during or directly following the program: 74 percent of students saw their overall grades jump one-half or one full letter grade, and 80 percent saw their science and math grades improve one-half or one full letter grade. Students reported educational and emotional benefits from the program, ranging from increased interest in science and technology (77 percent) to improved listening skills (83 percent) and finding a role model in the NYU-Poly fellows (80 percent). The CBRI program also helps reduce the isolation of minority students through robot design contests, in which they compete against students from unfamiliar communities as well as participate with them in informal learning experiences.

In addition to the Brooklyn Community Foundation, CBRI is supported by The Black Male Donor Collaborative, Motorola Foundation, J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, NY Space Grant Consortium and Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. The program is synergistic with a five-year program at NYU-Poly funded by the GK-12 Fellows program of the NSF to broaden graduate engineering education and provide fellows with teaching, communication, pedagogical, management and team-building skills.

In Washington, Kapila and Magued Iskander, associate professor of civil engineering, along with NYU-Poly students and Brooklyn teachers, will demonstrate to Expo visitors the mathematics, engineering and science behind their robots. The teachers are Cluny Lavache of Bedford Academy High School and Noam Pillischer of Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. Representing the NYU-Poly fellows are Nicole Abaid, doctoral candidate, mechanical engineering; Jennifer Haghpanah, doctoral candidate, chemical and biological science; Carlo Yuvienco, doctoral candidate, biomedical engineering; Ryan Caeti, master of science, mechanical engineering; Jared Alan Frank, master of science, mechanical engineering; and David Lopez, bachelor of science, mechanical engineering.