iRobot brings science message to Martha’s Vineyard students

The company program is designed to expose students to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Children at the Chilmark Public Library watched the PackBot pick up a water bottle during Monday's presentation. –Cameron Machell

Hoping to inspire the next generation of robotics engineers, iRobot brought a team of three employees — roboteers, as they called themselves — to Martha’s Vineyard last week to educate Island students about the company’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program.

Based in Bedford, iRobot was founded in 1990 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists who, according to the company’s website, aimed to make practical robots a reality. Their website says the company designs and builds robots to be used in homes, hospitals, businesses, and on battlefields.

“It’s about exposure, especially on the Island, to make sure these kids are seeing robotics and that they understand what the career is about,” STEM program manager Lisa Freed said.

Ms. Freed has been managing the program for the past 4½ years. In a phone interview with The Times, Ms. Freed said that the STEM program is iRobot’s philanthropic mission that reaches out to students from preschool to college. The program is all volunteer-based; about 50 percent of the 500 employees in the company volunteer by visiting various schools, libraries, and educational groups to get kids excited about and serve as an inspiration for moving into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. The employees are actually given two paid days a year to volunteer, called “STEM days.”

Ms. Freed said that the group that came to the Island reflected the many backgrounds that make up the team at iRobot. Both Colleen Connulty and Colleen Curran, although they don’t have engineering backgrounds, are still working at a high-tech company. Ms. Connulty is in graphic design, and Ms. Curran is in distribution. According to Ms. Freed, Bill Dullea did a couple of internships with the company, and now is working as a full-time mechanical engineer at Endeavor Robotics, a separate company that is affiliated with iRobot.

“The students can see there’s this breadth of careers available to them,” Ms. Freed said.

Roboteers Colleen Curran, Colleen Connulty, and Bill Dullea, along with a collection of robots, visited Chilmark library and Vineyard Haven Public Library last Monday. On Tuesday in Edgartown, they presented at the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club and the Edgartown Public Library.

At the Chilmark library on Monday, the three presenters showed a group of about 25 children four different models of robots from both iRobot and Endeavor Robotics. The first, and most familiar, was iRobot’s vacuum, the Roomba. Then they showed iRobot’s Braava jet, which is a robotic floor washer.

“What would be another cool thing to make a robot do?” Ms. Connulty asked the audience.

“Your homework!” one girl said.

Ms. Connulty and Ms. Curran told The Times after the meeting that this was typically the most popular answer.

“That’s my favorite one, because that’s the only one that we will never make,” Ms. Curran responded to the student. “There’s a very good reason for that, because if we have a robot that’s doing our homework, we’re not going to learn what we need to learn in order to build a robot. You have to do your homework, you have to do well in school, and you’ll find something that you really enjoy doing.”

The next two demonstrations from Endeavor Robotics had the kids most excited. Mr. Dullea demonstrated how FirstLook worked, telling the children that it provided additional visibility through a camera that was controlled by a tablet. He said it was a robot for the military, police, and security.

The kids were enamored of what looked like a militarized version of a remote-controlled car. Mr. Dullea passed it around, showing kids how the camera worked. One of the most exciting parts of the presentation came when the kids realized, as Mr. Dullea demonstrated, you could throw it on the ground without it breaking. Nearly every child in the room wanted a turn.

Another favorite during the STEM presentation was the PackBot demonstration. Mr. Dullea explained to the students that the Army, Navy, Marines, and local police departments use the PackBot “to pick up and get rid of things you don’t want to pick up.” The robot had a controller similar to that of an Xbox, which one young boy recognized immediately.

The children waited anxiously as they watched Mr. Dullea operate a long mechanical claw pick up both a water bottle and a stuffed Clifford the Big Red Dog. Both retrievals were met with a round of applause.

“It’s the exposure they get to math and science,” Ms. Connulty said. “You remember these things when you were a kid that were an inspiration for something — ‘When I was 5, I remember being in the library and really loved robotics, and I got hooked’ — and that’s kind of what our hope is now.”

The presenters and Ms. Freed all emphasized that the ultimate goal of the STEM program was about exposure and inspiration. Ms. Freed told The Times that part of the inspiration for students was seeing themselves as that person — the engineer, the distributor, the designer, or the marketer. She also talked about the importance for young girls of seeing women in the fields of science, technology, and math.

“We want them to see role models,” Ms. Freed said.

For example, for a girls’ robotics team at a school, STEM would send a woman engineer or intern to instill the idea that young girls are capable of breaking into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

According to Ms. Freed, STEM also offers job shadowing to high school students, which consists of a half-day of shadowing not just one, but up to 10 different people from various backgrounds so that students get a true taste of what they may want to do in the future.

STEM also offers paid internships for college students. Ms. Freed said it’s a very strong program, where students are deeply embedded in their chosen discipline for six months. She said it was a great way for students to test the waters.

The STEM program, which is primarily based in New England, helps kids from preschool to college translate their passion for robotics, science, math, and technology to the real world. STEM volunteers like Ms. Curran, Ms. Connulty, and Mr. Dullea help kids get excited about these fields of work, and inspire them to pursue those kinds of careers.

“We try to teach kids that what they’re doing now in school leads to fun,” Ms. Curran said. “This is cool. It’s really fun, and we’re changing the world.”

For more information, go to iRobot’s STEM website.