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Robots Welcome Inner-City Middle Schoolers to College


Undergraduates at Villanova University have adopted a Philadelphia middle school.

Clustered around an improvised, cardboard-walled arena in a lecture hall at Villanova University, boys and girls from Philadelphia's Julia de Burgos Middle School whoop as knee-high robots scoot across a tiled floor, grabbing colored ping pong balls. The robots are competing to collect the most balls and deposit them on "home base," a dark square in the corner.

Few of these youngsters have been on a college campus before. Their world comprises the littered and graffiti-scarred streets of North Philadelphia. But since their middle school was adopted by the undergraduates of Villanova's Association for Computing Machinery, as part of an HHMI-supported Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education program at the university, the boys and girls of Julia de Burgos keep finding their horizons broadening. Spending a Saturday at Villanova, watching the battle of the robots and learning to navigate in cyberspace in a university computer lab, they're getting a taste of a life that could be theirs in six or seven years.

In the robot arena, the children meet the champ. The robot Johnny Five took four days to build and another two to program. "And he sort-of works," says Lance Rougeux, a recent Villanova graduate who now teaches at Julia de Burgos. He calls the robots "Legos that think." They are "simple reflex agents," Rougeux tells the youngsters. "They see something; they react." The robots' "eyes" are light sensors that can differentiate among white, yellow and black. Navigation is the trickiest part of the program; Johnny Five and his fellow robots run into a lot of walls.

Back at Julia de Burgos Middle School, a 13-year old boy named Benjamin bangs away cheerfully at one of 20 computers donated by Villanova through its HHMI grant and networked by members of the ACM, who also donate their time to help the students learn to use computer technology. Glancing up from his monitor, Benjamin says confidently: "I want to go to Villanova and be a computer engineer."

"This has been a great motivator," says Rougeux of the computers and the Villanova volunteers. "Most of these middle-school kids had no idea how anything they do or don't do today could affect their future. Now they have goals, and they know that what they learn today can help them reach those goals."

In collaboration with the National Science Foundation, Villanova also uses part of its HHMI grant to host a summer research institute for 45 students and fifteen teachers from high schools with large numbers of minority or economically disadvantaged students. They come to Pennsylvania from nine states and the District of Columbia and work in teams on research proposals, then on research projects, presenting their findings at a symposium.

"In the spirit of our Augustinian mission of learning, love and community, we are trying to open welcoming windows here at Villanova, to enable these youngsters to see a future in which they are college students, studying science and effectively using the latest technology," explains William M. Fleischman, professor of computing and mathematical sciences who directs Villanova's HHMI program.

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Jim Keeley
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